On-Boarding: Lowering the User Interaction Learning Curve

When Apple updated to iOS 8 it led smartphone users to the “Tips” app which helped people get acquainted with the device’s new features.

If you have recently updated your phone’s software or downloaded a new app you may have seen something like the image above. A unique prompt window welcomes you and introduces the many features available within the new application, highlighting buttons, tools, and ways to interact. The problem is that once you get through all the “next” buttons, this window disappears never to be seen again. Personally, I find myself eagerly skipping through these instructions, saying to myself “Yeah, yeah I got it. I got it. When can I start playing with this thing?!” Then I get to a point where I am asking myself, “wait how do I do that again?” I imagine I am not the only person who has had this experience. This is a problem.

The issue is that this introductory prompt window technique bombards users with information, overwhelming them with instructions on how to navigate their new toy. In this specific instance, Apple is providing instructions on how to use tools that are hidden behind gestures and aren’t anchored in the interface with icons or buttons. Instead of providing formal, introductory tutorials I would suggest another approach; taking a page out of the book of an adventurous plumber named Mario.

The first stage of Mario (left) had simple elements to allow players to become familiar with game interaction. As players progressed through the game, later stages (right) became more complex and challenging.

Mario on NES had a wonderful on-boarding model. Within the game, users have controls to move left, right, duck, jump, and run. The environment has physical obstacles, prizes, and your occasional “bad-guy.” What is so admirable about Mario is that the game introduced players to elements one at a time instead of giving them everything all at once. This 8-bit video game applied a simple, incremental approach to revealing features allowing players to get familiar with a new element of the game before adding more complex elements. This method allows the game to feel easy and fun. It may be hard to believe but sometimes I wish my smartphone felt more like a mid-80’s video game.

Mobile applications would likely have greater success on-boarding users if they started out by just introducing essential elements. This should start by considering the core features of the app. Then reveal them one at a time. Users would be able to get a better grasp on the functions and slowly become more confident. After users have been given enough time to understand the core features, new ones can be revealed incrementally. One feature at a time, at a comfortable pace, could prevent people from getting overwhelmed and ensure users can better interact with designs as intended.


Everyone Does Deserve Great Design


I stumbled upon a fantastic webpage by Ehsan Nourish titled Everyone Deserves Great Design. Seemingly fed up with poor design, Ehsan reveals guidelines designers should follow in order to make products that matter. He continues by recognizing that just because a product has a social mission does not automatically make that product great. On you’ll find 4 examples that are used to highlight instances where socially just concepts fail to deliver long-lasting, impactful solutions. Most of these examples sound great on paper, but fail shortly after their implementation. Furthermore, designers who create these products are often wearing a “holier-than-thou” hat that suggests they know better than the folks they are designing for simply because of their unique skill set. I completely share Eshan’s frustration here but I would also like to expand on it slightly.


Anytime a foreigner (literal or figurative) comes into a new environment to create a solution there is a certain responsibility of mindfulness and tact that must come along. The need for a tactful approach spans from consultants working with an organization to designers working across continents. The more the culture for which the designer is solving for deviates from the culture with which they are familiar, the need for sensitive consideration grows. Tact. Yes. Absolutely. But beyond that the solutions need to be mindful of how they can be truly impactful in their environments.


All of the concepts that Eshan criticizes are similar in that they are made from foreign materials by foreigners. Foreign materials that can not be locally sourced significantly decrease the long-term success of an concept. Non-local sourcing of materials is inefficient and makes it difficult to repair or reproduce concepts. Designers can minimize resource inefficiencies by empowering the locals. If local materials and the local community are involved throughout the entire design process, then the likelihood of an innovative solution’s ability to solve wicked problems increases exponentially. The local community can sustain the concept not simply because they have plenty of raw materials readily available but because they have a deep familiarity and connection with the design.


Designers shouldn’t act as prescribers of solutions. At the very least they should have a foundational understanding of the local culture and customs. Better still, the designer can be an enabler, guiding locals to create their own solutions. The difference here ensures solutions are built using the local minds, local labor, and local materials. This allows independence and prevents communities from being dependent on the designers to maintain or refine solutions. If this approach was more common, there would not be idling Soccket balls waiting for repair and locals could reengineer PlayPumps to pump as fast as the original pumps they replaced. The difference here is not between giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish. In fact, it is closer to teaching men to teach others how to fish—which has a more profound, sustainable impact.

Packaging is Important

I recently completed a project where I worked with a team to understand how to make the workplace a more effective/attractive place to be. In the still emerging world of the mobile workforce, people have the ability to chose to work from home however employers are finding that they prefer their employees to be in the office (see: Yahoo). As any good design project begins, part of recognizing ways to attract workers to return to their office environments starts with understanding the current-state.

I interviewed employees, got valuable responses, and shared them with the team. Sharing the detailed insights from interviews across the team helps unify our understanding of the current work environment and lay the ground work for concept ideation. We all understood where our perspectives were coming from and this allowed the group’s momentum to continue forward. As a team, we all have an appreciation for taking the time to fully understand what is going on before jumping to concepting. Unfortunately, many clients do not feel the same way.

Packaging findings from interviews allows clients to review research discoveries and formulate their own understanding of the current-state. This documentation from a previous project includes photos of interviewees, interview summaries and insights from the conversations.

Clients have a tendency to be eager to see the final product. This has been the case with our recent project and the quality of our work has suffered from it. Presenting concepts before reviewing findings impedes on the valuable step of taking the time to understand what is going on currently. This leads to a lackluster reveal when concepts are presented. I find clients are more likely to ask “why” in circumstances where concepts are presented before we have developed a foundational shared understanding. This is not the preferred approach but their confusion is understandable.

This would be like if you went in to a doctors office because you were experiencing leg pain and walked hobbled out with a cast on you leg without ever seeing an X-ray.



If you don’t understand why you have a cast on your leg you might be inclined to pry if off yourself and even repeat whatever it was that put you in a cast in the first place.

Designers should advocate for reviewing findings before getting to concepts. Personas, profiles, interview insight documents, and presentations–there are many ways to do it but packaging discovery material allows complex information to be easily understood and shared. It also helps illustrate the value you have for the work, so the client is more likely to value it as well. Merely talking about findings loosely in a meeting will never have the same impact of showing the evidence and sharing the direct sources of where the insights came from. It provides the client with the material they need to connect the dots themselves in a much shorter amount of time then it originally took you. It also allows clients to diagnose themselves instead of taking a “my word vs yours” approach.

Providing a sense of agency for the client is invaluable.


Design Tools: MakeTools


Liz Sanders brought her expertise into the studio to share her wisdom on MakeTools (a form of generative research). With a bachelors in both psychology and anthropology coupled with a PhD in Experimental and Quantitative Psychology, Liz has a strong understanding of how to employ human-centered design to address environmental, social, and cultural problems. She is a specialist and pioneer in generative research, where methods and tools are used to physically build concepts.


This method invites users to explore concept design with flexible materials. These materials usually range from images on paper, to hand-held foam models, to full size scale models that replicate a real environment. Users are given materials to design concepts, explore ideal features, and explain intended use. This informs the design of concepts.

IMG_6205 copy

As Liz spoke about how her arsenal of materials for her research method range from 2-D  to full scale spaces, I asked her how she determines which style to use when working with clients. She responded by saying that it is usually incremental. Most clients aren’t ready for three dimensional representations of objects, much less full scale rmodels. Liz said that she usually begins her client relationship with simple tools to help them become familiar with her methods. Then she slowly moves from 2-D to 3-D as they become more familiar with the technique. All of her methods are valuable regardless of scale, but the closer to real life the tools are, the more valuable the research.

Learn more about Liz Sanders and MakeTools here.

Details Make an Experience

After browsing the visually wonderful Petrolicious site, I watched the above video. It’s seven and a half minutes capturing a man’s relationship with his car. James Chen describes the details about what makes this vehicle unique and shares a deep appreciation for the Italian exotic.

The morning ritual he describes would seem cumbersome to average drivers, and would most likely never strengthen the sale of a Toyota Yaris, but to him, it’s all part of the experience. He even goes on to liken it to foreplay. “It is not something to be hurried.” It’s all part of the experience of driving the Ferrari Lusso. Charles Eames is quoted for saying “the design is in the details” and in the case of the Lusso, it is the voids that enhance the experience (much like in music). There is no radio or A/C but those are welcomed deletes in the vintage exotic. From 2:34 to 3:05 you can see why.

This is a wonderful example of appreciation for good design. The Lusso is by no means the fastest Ferrari and probably would not be considered the best looking, but the formula that makes up the little red automobile is just right for James Chen. A lot of that has to do with the details that make driving the vehicle not just another pedestrian activity but rather a fulfilling automotive experience. While my automotive interests usually stay on this side of the pond, I can appreciate James’ passion for his driving experience. Now stop reading and watch the video!

Design Tools: Stakeholder Mapping

2013-03-05 12.16.14 copy

Dominic Prestifilippo and Heather Nero of andCulture came by the studio to talk about stakeholder mapping. This was an exercise that does what an org chart does not. In stakeholder mapping, people who are relevant to your project are mapped out using an X,Y axis. The two axis can represent different variables, but usually they are labeled interest and influence. This activity helps identify commonalities between stakeholders and how to focus efforts.

After introducing the concept, we put the method to use. Dominic and Heather gave use a scenario to employ stakeholder mapping. The scenario was that a university has hired us to start a recycling program. We needed to map out key stakeholders and explain their influence to the project. Since this was a mock-project, the information was speculative but it was a great way to employ the method. The x axis represented interest in the project while the y axis represented power.

Photo Mar 05, 1 21 43 PM

I worked with Meghan in this stakeholder mapping exercise. We placed university administration members higher along the y axis while students where lower. Outside interest groups were placed to the far right of the x axis while janitorial staff were place toward the origin because new recycling methods would likely increase their work load. Once the map was complete, we had a good idea of where sources of support could be found and who influential people are that need to be considered in the project.

Stakeholder mapping is a useful tool to understand how different people relate to a project. Dominic and Heather also mentioned how a stakeholder map can be brought to the stakeholders for validation. This can then open up discussion in different stakeholders perceive where other parties fall on the map.

Sustaining Culture Change

My thesis work has been wrapping up quite nicely. Over the past year and a half I have helped an academic health center employ design which has required significant culture change. The projects evolved from re-designing services offered by the organization to designing opportunities for employees to redesign their own work. These latter efforts have taught employees innovation and design thinking, to empower them to design for themselves. These new teachings deviate from cultural norms and have had a hard time sticking after they are learned. I am happy to say that my most recent model for building an innovative culture has shown an improved understanding and application of the learning. At the same time, this has seen a ripple effect as it has spread throughout the organization.

I designed a strategy to support the learning of innovation beyond the bootcamps where the methods are taught. This strategy, employed a designer to support the work of a team who recently attended an innovation workshop. This role would help guide the team as it worked through a problem but not lead or take charge of the team. This strategy was created from my research on understanding culture change.

Hillson.Thesis1 Hillson.Thesis2

I am currently working on the documentation for the whole project, but I want to share some data I gathered from the work. A the beginning of the team collaboration, I administered a survey to get an understanding of the team’s competence in innovation. I then administered the same survey afterward to see if there was a difference in how comfortable the team felt about employing innovative thinking. The data is divided by how the organization describes innovation in four components (gaining insights, defining the problem, exploring solutions, and rapid validation). The results are below.

Data Synth

Comparing the data side-by-side reveals several discoveries that highlight the impact of this role. Because nurses talk to patients everyday, the cardiovascular care team always felt very comfortable with talking to people about there experiences. The greatest change was seen in the teams comfort with gaining insights. This can be attributed to their new understanding of the use of qualitative data. The area that saw the least change was in problem definition. Future supporting roles should aim to strengthen support here. There was significant growth in the team’s comfort in rapid validation. The team not only learned the importance of testing concepts but also the value of failed ideas.

While the team clearly improved their abilities in the work from this project, they also effected the culture around them. One of the team members said that another unit within the health center saw the project they were working on and said they wanted to do the same thing. They then shared their work with the other unit and it is acting as a foundation for a similar project they are working on. Here we see the spread of innovation without employees having to attend a workshop. At the same time, another one of the team members was working with a separate team on an unrelated project. She said that she has been able to apply these same skills to that project which has greatly improved her work. Again, innovation is spreading throughout the culture, causing change.

It has been very clear that the organization has valued this strategy as it has seen the benefits both in quality of the work, and the spread of the learning, but sustaining the role is an entirely different issue. It has been proven that a supporting role can help sustain the change that is being taught in innovation bootcamps, but how can the role itself be sustained? I am currently working with the organization to identify how this role can continue to support their work. If we can workout a scenario where more designers can support more teams, whether that involves graduate level designers or professionals, then I would consider that to be sustainable change.