A Game Plan and a Half: How Good Prep Saved An Over-Worked, Under-Trained Dad from Half-Marathon Disaster

I’m not a runner, but I run. I’m slow as shit, but I run.

My slowness is the result of a couple of things. At 5′ 6″, I have to take quite a few more steps to cover the same amount of ground as my taller friends. At 170 I’m still about 20 pounds over my ideal weight, though I’m way down from my highest weigh-in at 234.

However, after running a decent-ish 5k (28:11) earlier in the year, I decided I needed a new, big fitness goal, and rather rashly signed up for the Rock n’ Roll Denver Half Marathon.

I was thinking about a lot of things when I signed up – having a life accomplishment that none of my friends had achieved, the athletic challenge of competing in a long race, and the glory of crossing the finish line as “All I Do is Win” blared from my headphones.

What I hadn’t counted on was my training schedule.

I work a full-time job, I’m a husband to a beautiful woman, a father to our young child, and I also run a couple of professional side projects. The upshot of this is that I’m usually burning the candle at both ends already.

The only truly free time I have to train is during my lunch break, and occasionally – if there’s not a birthday party, family get-together, softball game, emergency choir practice, etc., etc., – on the weekends.

Most days, I would eat my lunch at my desk before taking a break and cruising over to gym a couple of minutes down the road, where there was a running track and temperature-controlled environment that made running during all weather simple and straight forward. It also had a shower facility, a lifesaver for my coworkers who undoubtedly would not have appreciated the post-run stank that comes with going back to work without a good dousing.

However, even my lunch break training was a bit spotty – there were days where the most time I had between meetings was half an hour. Training those days simply wasn’t happening.

Try as I might to make a schedule that would work for me, life’s shenanigans made any training schedule impossible to stick to. The result was a halting, uneven method of training. I’d run 3-4 miles (any more and I wouldn’t have time to shower up before my next meeting) 3-4 days a week, and sneak in a longer run on Fridays or Saturdays.

I found that at a heart rate of 140 bpm, I could run for seemingly as long as I liked, though it was rare that I got a chance to run more than 4 miles.

As the days ticked away, and I couldn’t find the time to increase my mileage, I began to panic. I somehow managed to slip in a 7-miler a week before the race, but that was as far as my training took me. I was bolstered by the fact that I still felt strong after 7 miles, and terrified by the fact that a half marathon required almost double what I had done already.

Another reality of my training was that it was all indoors and on a track, at around noon. Though I had run a few outdoor sessions, none had hills, none were done in the 40-degree weather that was predicted for race day, and none were done before 10 AM. The shock of the pavement had to be considered as well.

What did I do? What could I do?

I studied, a lot. I read up on strategies for running hills and chose one to try – keep a consistent, fastish pace up one side, and cruise down the other. I read about how to prepare for race day, physically and mentally. I found out how to flow through the porta-potties, gear check, and parking in a bout an hour. I read about not experimenting with new gear less than two weeks before race day and laying out your gear a night previously. I discovered the absolute necessity of using body glide on one’s nipples and nether regions to prevent a bloody, painful mess that one wouldn’t want to discuss with anyone else.

I practiced with in-race energy intake, probably looking like an idiot munching on Extreme Beans after running on the track for 20 minutes. I read up on how to keep warm before the race and selected an old hoody that would become my pre-race warmup. I got into a routine of cheerios and fruit before my runs, to keep my stomach from launching a mid-race rebellion.

I worked on my mental game. I would try and get myself mentally ready for a run around 7 AM, even though I was usually in my car on the way to work. In my training runs, I never completed 3 of the 4 miles for that session – it was always 3 of 13 miles. I ran like I was going to run 13 miles, even though every run was well short of that mark.

Pre-Race

Looking confused on my way from the car to the start area. I wasn't sure I'd remember where I parked. Spoiler alert: I didn't, and walked around for about half an hour after the race trying to find the right lot.
Looking confused on my way from the car to the start area. I wasn’t sure I’d remember where I parked. Spoiler alert: I didn’t, and walked around for about half an hour after the race trying to find the right lot.

My best-laid plans were almost thwarted before I left the house.

I laid out my outfit, packed my gear bag, and reserved a nearby parking space the night before. I had good breakfast of cheerios and fruit, and was feeling well-hydrated and fueled. All set to head out the door, I went to find my keys.

I couldn’t find them.

The result was tearing madly enough through the house to cause a horrific mess while doing it quietly enough to not wake my wife and son.

Although I found the keys hidden in my wife’s purse, I was already a half hour behind schedule. I hopped in my car and tore downtown, parked, and used the half-mile between my car and the starting area as my warmup run.

I still managed to get to the starting 40 minutes before the gun was set to go off, though I was 20 minutes behind the mental schedule I set for myself. I managed to hit the porta-potties to drop the bombs and apply body glide as directed, check my gear, pop some caffeinated gum and get in a quick stretch before heading to my corral. I had hucked the throwaway sweatshirt I had been wearing in my gear bag as I was feeling very warm from my dash run from the parking lot, and was down to just my usual cool weather running gear:

  • Compression undershirt

  • Long-sleeve tech shirt

  • Short sleeve tech shirt on top

  • Running Belt with my phone, 3 packs of energy beans, and caffeinated gum

  • Headphones

  • Garmin Vivoactive HR

  • Sunglasses

  • Bandanna

After standing around for about 10 minutes waiting for the corrals in front of us to be released, we were finally ready to go.

I was about mid-corral, looking up at the start banner, and surprised to find that I was quite confident. My training may not have been what I wanted, but I was prepared as I could possibly be.

Miles 1-3

I turned on my Garmin as we crossed the line and turned it immediately to HR mode. In the only race I had run before – the previously-mentioned 5k – I made the mistake of going out more quickly than I would have liked and had to pull back more than I wanted to in the middle. I knew that mistake would be fatal, but whether it was adrenaline, caffeine, or some other combination, I was sitting around 165 bpm for the first mile, no matter how slow I felt I was running. My first mile was still at a 9:05 pace, way above where I wanted it to be.

I pulled back even more and began to interact with the world around me. I knew one other person running the race, but she was running with her yoga studio and we hadn’t made plans to meet. So I high-fived the odd spectator, thanked every police officer I passed. I had front-loaded my race day playlist with chill out music, and did my best to get my mood in-tune with my music.

Around mile 3 I eventually found my groove and the 2:30 pacer was in-sight, but my heart rate was still at 160 bpm. I was feeling good, though, so I decided to just go with it. We cruised through downtown, around by the Pepsi Center, and headed towards the one big hill that threatened to de-rail my “run the whole thing” goal – the run up Wewatta Street behind Coors Field.

It may not have been a challenge for some, but for me it was a mountain. I was starting to feel a bit fatigued as we approached the hill, so I popped the first of my energy beans before we reached the bottom.

Miles 3-6

As we started up, the pacer was putting some distance between herself and me. Unmoved by her charge, I took my steady, quick pace up the hill and kept my feet moving. I managed to get to the top, still running and still feeling good. With a smile I cruised down the other side, with the 2:30 pacer still in-sight, though further away than she was before. Finding my groove once again, we meandered through downtown and a few much smaller hills until turning onto 17th street to head towards City Park.

Miles 6-9

I found myself oddly inspired by the interaction I was having with the people lining the race course, and the run up 17th street gave me a unique opportunity to give back a bit of what I was getting. The course takes its turnaround at mile marker 10, which is the end of 17th street after running a couple of miles through City Park. The left side of the street (which I was on) was heading in, while the right side was filled with the faster runners on their last 5K to the finish. I hugged the middle line and cheered on the faster runners as I ran down 17th, clapping and shouting encouragement especially to those who looked less fresh. I popped another pack of beans and kept my legs moving, trying not to think about the fact that I was now heading into personally-uncharted running territory.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and – lo and behold, the one person who I knew running the race somehow found me in the sea of runners. Her yoga group had decided to stop for a rest, but she had decided to charge on. At this point I was running a pace where I had lost the 2:30 pacer, and decided to to just be happy having a running buddy for a bit. We ran together and held a breathless conversation through the park until her yoga group caught up with us around mile 9.5 – and then promptly decided to take a break again. Though she hung back with her group, we had made up time on the pacer, who was now in-sight (though maybe a quarter mile off) once more.

Miles 10-13.1

I had the 2:30 pacer in-sight and about 5k to go. I made a point of hugging the center line of 17th as we made the turn and gave encouragement and high fives to the runners bringing up the rear. I slowly and steadily made up ground on the pacer, and caught her as I popped my last pack of beans at about mile 11.

Once I passed her I finally flipped my watch to check my time and pace. I was feeling good, and running a little bit ahead of my 2:30 goal. In fact, 2:25 might be reasonable.

I decided to go for it. I took my phone and turned on Van Canto’s version of “Holding Out for a Hero” (a weird choice for my favorite running jam, but there you have it) and turned on my tiny afterburners.

I was going to give this last two miles everything I had left in the tank. I burned my way down 17th and fought the urge to slow at every step. I didn’t check my watch for anything now – I was either going to make it under 2:25, or fail my newfound goal while giving my absolute best effort.

As I turned towards the finish line in front of the Civic Center, I could hear the crowd but couldn’t see the finish. I hadn’t afforded any energy for the small hill up to the capital steps that hid the finish line from view. I pleaded with the small crowd there to give me some noise and encouragement; they responded admirably. In a moment of pure, blissful coincidence, as I crested the hill and started down the other side to the final sprint to the finish, “All I Do is Win” came on my headphones.

I was feeling great. The finish line was all downhill from there – literally – and I started to wave my arms to pump up the crowd as I turned the final corner. Their kitten-esque roar spurred me on, and harkening back to my days as a sprinter in high school, I threw myself into the final 400 meters. I hit my watch a few seconds after crossing the finish line, and was overjoyed to see it showed 2:24:58.

Post-Race

Fighting both the tears in my eyes and the immediate tightening of my calf muscles, I took one of everything from the finisher’s chute, got in a quick stretch, picked up my medal and gear bag, and went home to my waiting son, who had been with his grandmother that morning while my wife sang in the church choir. After his grandmother had left and he had gone down fro a nap, I got my clothes off and got one foot in the shower before my son woke up absolutely wailing from a nightmare. After a quick hug, diaper change, and a story, he was back down, and I was back on my way to the shower – only discover that my nipples were on fire.

The body glide had done only part of its job. I made a mental note to try athletic tape next time.

In the end, finishing was a bigger reward than I could have imagined. I spent the rest of the day hobbling around the grocery store, the park, and my living room as we painted it, all with the biggest smile on my face.

What’s Next?

What started as a rash decision to obtain a far-reaching goal had become reality. As I write this today, I’m not sure what route to take. A full marathon seems out of the question for the very reasons my training schedule put me behind the 8-ball while training for a half.

Is it time to step back and check off the 10k distance I jumped? Focus on the 5k? Try a spring triathlon? Hang up the shoes and never run again?

No way.

I’m not a runner, but I run. I’m slow as shit (finishing 225th out of 360 in my division), but I run.

3 Non-UX Design Subreddits UXers Need to Read

My name is Doug, and I have a reddit problem.

Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with the site: to put it frankly, reddit is addicting.   I long ago fell prey to its allure.  My /u/DenverUXer account is setup to provide me with a stream of tailored, interesting content of UX design subreddits catered specifically to my tastes.

Buried in my subscription lists are my true favorite daily treats: the unwittingly-UX-related gems that don’t realize they’re about the user experience design.

I’m sure to read through these every day, and you should, too.

Why Read Non-UX Design Subreddits?

Unsurprisingly, UXers are usually detail-oriented folk.  That means we wear blinders.  Usually these are metaphorical, unless your cube neighbor is particularly annoying – in which case, you do you.

However, our detail-induced-blinders come at a price.  With focus on the small pieces, we lose site of the bigger picture of what makes UX important.  We are the wheels moving the way humanity interacts with the world better.

This is important.  This matters.  This is what we do.

That’s why I love these non-UX design subreddits, and their ability to keep me focused on the “why” behind my work.

They are a reminder of what’s important to both the physical and virtual worlds.  Of the powerful needs and attractions of human psychology on how we interact with the world at large.  Of why what we do matters on a daily basis.

Whether you reddit today or need a guide to “The Front Page of the Internet” (in which case, you’re welcome, and I’m sorry), here are four non-UX design subreddits that you need to subscribe to – and why they matter for UX professionals.

/r/WeWantPlates – How Bad UX Affects Everyday Life

A man looks at a presentation of food that, though beautiful, is completely inedible due to the lack of plates. /r/WeWantPlates is a great example of how non-UX design subreddits give a glimpse into valuable UX lessons.
Give us back our **** plates.

Most of us eat at least three times a day.  Some of us, like that jerk I was from 2009 to 2011 eat more often than this.

And while current me wants to punch old me in the mouth for eating that third Chipotle burrito in an afternoon, it turns out my restaurant consumption may not have been too far off normal.  The Average American eats out around 216 times every year.

My bagged lunch and midday puffing around a track is keeping me from buying more double quarter pounders to add to my gut.  My decreasing restaurant habbit now puts me in the minority of Americans.

Yes, the number of annual restaurant visits for most Americans is increasing.

With so many people and meals being served, restaurants are looking for ways to stand out in today’s crowded market.

Some do this by making better food.  Others do it by taking away our God **** plates.

From bacon cooked and served on a clothesline (a far inferior method to a campfire) to deserts served on iPads, /r/WeWantPlates all about the user experience of the modern restaurant, and the absurd turn that it’s taken.

As one user commented about a cheeseburger and tater tots served in a mug (because reasons), “Whhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy would you do this???”

And you know what?  I consider myself a good UX professional, but I guarantee you that an experience I’ve designed has had at least one user say that about my work.  If you design enough interfaces, or cook enough cheeseburgers, it’s inevitable.

This is what happens when you fall in love with the form of your design, and forget the function.  /r/WeWantPlates is a reminder to never forget the needs and end goal of the users.

/r/DamnThatsInteresting – Why We’re Infatuated with Impactful Solutions

Ice cream is delicious... especially when served by a curiously courteous robot.
Ice cream is delicious… especially when served by a curiously courteous robot.

I like to think of myself as a creative person.  I’m proud of my burgeoning effort to make #DailyToDoodle a thing for my fellow UXers, and I once even drew a horrible cartoon series to submit to editors.

And then I visit /r/DamnThatsInteresting. Nearly every post over there is, at its core, about a fascinating solution to someone’s problem, and the story behind it.

I could spend hours watching people making easy under-stairs parking solutions and thermite canons and self-closing pill bottles and… crap, what was I doing again?

Oh yeah.  Remembering that, even though we decided to be edgy and use an X for experience instead of an e, UX is equally about the experience as it is the user.  Literally, it’s right there in the name – or it would be, if the person who coined the term wasn’t too in-touch with their late-90’s Mountain Dew commercials.

The experiences highlighted here stand in stark contrast to /r/WeWantPlates in one key way.  While both are visually interesting, what we see over at /r/DamnThatsInteresting is whimsical and functional.

It’s the experience here that stands out, and we as UX professionals can’t forget that piece of our puzzle.

/r/OfCourseThatsAThing – The Lengths We Go to Problem Solve

Goldfish: the answer to life's loneliness.
Goldfish: the answer to life’s loneliness.

Imagine you’re traveling alone on business, in a city you’ve never visited and where your friends and family don’t live.

How do you stave off the inevitable loneliness that will creep in the moment your Netflix suggestions fall flat?

Maybe you’ll visit a bar to find someone up for a chat.  Maybe you’ll FaceTime your family or friends to see a familiar face.

Or, possibly, you might rent a goldfish to help keep you company in your room during your stay.

It’s no surprise that concept was featured over on /r/OfCourseThatsAThing – a place all about the lengths which people will go to solve very specific problems or meet specific needs. Half /r/WeWantPlates wacky, half /r/DamnThatsInteresting whimsy, /r/OfCourseThatsAThing serves to illustrate that where there’s a problem, there’s an (often unreasonable but ingenuitive) solution.

Some problems and their importance may not seem big to us as UXers, but they were important enough to someone out there create things like $80, app-based, temperature-controlled mugs and and typewriters that type musical notes rather than words.

Would I design – or even contemplate – 90% of what shows up on /r/OfCourseThatsAThing?  Hell, no.  But you know what?  I am not the user.  What’s important to me is not necessarily what’s important to the people using these products.

If /r/OfCourseThatsAThing underlines anything, it’s staying curious about our users and their needs.  It highlights the need to never overlook the utility of UX testing, uncovering the needs and wants of our users, and finding solutions to their problems – not ours.

/X Needs to Be Lived

Looking for UX in the world around us is a big part of becoming a great UX professional.  In the same way that you may not notice how many of particular car is on the road until you buy that model, it’s easy to miss the UX lessons we encounter every day unless we’re paying attention.

While reddit should (hopefully) remain a small part of your life, like everything else we do, it should seek to provide us with guidance and inspiration.

With the help of non-UX design subreddits filled with clueless chefs, fascinating problem solvers, and inventive minds, reddit can do just that.

Dark Patterns in Social Media: A Case Study from Quantumcloud’s Posts on UXMastery.com

Dark Patterns: Explanation and Today’s Example

I written before about dark patterns and other UX niches, but don’t often have a reason to share my practical experience.  That changed today with an illuminating encounter on UXMastery.com’s community that taught a valuable lesson on how dark pattern practitioners manipulate our decisions and opinions.

If you’re not familiar with dark patterns, check out DarkPatterns.org, one of the go-to resources for exposing anti-design.  They have this to say about what Dark Patterns are:

Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to…. If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of this by making a page look like it is saying one thing when it is in fact saying another.

From a UX perspective, we tend to focus on conversations surrounding blatant dark design and avoiding gray areas in work.

However, sometimes products and services we create offer the opportunities for others to use them in ways we didn’t intend, especially when they generate trust in our user base that others may violate through their own, user-provided content.

Recently, I ran into a post on UXMastery.com from a company called Quantumcloud, who creates websites and WordPress plugins out of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The post was a great example of how companies manipulate our users’ hard-earned trust to advance their own agendas, and (as we’ll see at the end of the article) echoes similar tactics used by Russian social media trolls used to sway the US elections.

The Setup

Unfortunately for the purposes of this response, Quantumcloud’s original post has since been deleted. The original posting, however, was concerning their new “Slider Hero” WordPress plugin. The initial paragraph stated that it was a new product, hinting that it was yet-to-be-released. A link to the company’s page for the product followed, along with a description of the plugin features. The post finished by stating that it was a new product, and asked for *developer* feedback.

Tipping Their Hand

There were a few things that were fishy about the post:

  • Quantumcloud was a new account on the site, with only a single comment response in the 1-month life of their account prior to posting this topic.
  • The copy in the product description sounded suspiciously like it was copy and pasted from marketing material. It was teeming with happy words (such as exciting, interesting, useful) used to make a product seem more interesting.
  • The word “developers” in the final paragraph hinted that this posting was copy and pasted from a similar post on another forum geared towards developers rather than UX professionals.

Posts like this advertising plugins, pages, or services are usually made on high-value, highly-SEO’d sites geared towards tech professionals to gain both attention from the user base. Hopefully this elicits one or two positive comments, which then show highly in search results for the product. It’s an old trick, but if done right, it works.

Fortunately, the wonderful community at UX Mastery has seen posts like this from time to time, and is very good at roundly ignoring them. The post never garnered a single response until the site’s wonderful admin,  @HAWK, created this topic to discuss the potential usefulness of these types of posts, as it appeared just-borderline-enough to be a plausible call to help.

Calling Out Quantumcloud

I’ve been around UX Mastery’s community for a while, and have been using professional forums in varying capacities for years. It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that this was an advertisement masquerading as a call for help, meant to get the attention of the tech community of potential WordPress plugin users.

Before anyone could call Quantumcloud on their antics, they attempted to save the situation.  Their response to the initial question of whether these types of posts should be allowed was apologetic, stating

I am sorry but if there was any other way I should have done it, please let me know. Should I create another setup without Buy now links?

I, truly am seeking professional feedback here.

Thanks

This blatant attempt at damage control (written in rather poor English) set me off more than anything else, and I responded in an overly-heavy-handed manner not typical of my usual UXMastery posts or professional conduct.

Hey @quantumcloud, how about investing in a community before posting thinly-veiled advertisements? This is pretty blatant self-promotion in my opinion, and absolutely violates the “If you sign up and post links to your own work or site immediately, that’s not cool” rule.

I love that users who are invested in the community and here to get and give feedback. They should absolutely feel comfortable sharing their work here.

It’s pretty clear that’s not you.

You’ve been around here for less than a month, have two post replies (including the one above me), and the only topic you’ve posted is advertising your own work. You’ve spent a whopping 9 minutes here to boot. Even your product domain is barely a month old.

Additionally, your company goes back to 2002 and has a fairly expansive portfolio, so I can’t imagine you’re at all interested in genuine feedback.

A few pieces of advice for you:

  • Don’t take us for fools. We can spot an advertisement when we see one.
  • If you want professional UX feedback for your professional projects, go out and hire one. You’re obviously very comfortable with freelance work, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you.
  • If you want feedback from a community, invest in that community before asking for help. Spend more than 10 minutes there before shilling your product.

If it were up to me, I’d be polishing up the ol’ banhammer for you.

Sorry, @HAWK – I know this post is a fiery. I’m simply passionate about this community and the people that make it great. If @quantumcloud is willing to put time and effort into building relationships here and participating in the process of getting and giving feedback, I’m happy to have him. Perhaps we need a minimum “like” score or post/reply count before being allowed to post external links?

Fiery? Absolutely. Offensive to Quantumcloud? Almost assuredly.

But inaccurate? Absolutely not.

How Dark Patterns Damage a Business

Having been called out, Quantumcloud went into damage control mode, and for good reason. As an online business that relies on the trust of its web-savvy customers, the initial reasons why it posted (free advertising on a highly-SEO’d site likely to be viewed by its target audience and show up highly in search results) would now work against it if it couldn’t salvage the situation.

The most common tactic when things go south like this is to claim good intentions and complain that you were treated unfairly, in one manner or another, by the person calling them out in one manner or another. The call out is then asked to be deleted, which removes the negative feedback against the company, thus retaining their positive reputation.

That’s exactly what Quantumcloud did when it became clear the situation with their initial post could not be salvaged.  The quickly moved to have my comment censored, saying

I think the links should be deleted from @dougcollins post. I posted a single link to the live demo only (obviously a new domain expressly for the demo purpose only) – not to our main company website or even the product landing page. @dougcollins’ post contains multiple links to our main website which can be misleading people.

You’ll notice, however, that none of the links in my post were misleading. One lead to a page that tracks new domain registrations, which certainly doesn’t have a horse in the race. The others lead to Quantumcloud’s own portfolio and Behance profile. It’s hard to see how content they created is misleading, unless, of course, they were the ones doing the misleading.

The Last Gasp

They continued damage control in the same post, stating,

My timing was bad and I recognize that. But I needed feedback now – when the MVP is ready, to decide whether it is worth spending more time and effort on it. Not after 1 month. My thought process was as simple as that. Hope you can understand.

My usual response to this thinking would be something along the lines of “If you want professional UX feedback, hire a UX professional. We do not work for free. This community is not your free work force at your leisure when you need us, and to ignore when you’re done.”

Quantumcloud lists 22 employees on LinkedIn, and not a single one is a UX professional. It’s clear UX isn’t a priority for them.

It was already pretty apparent that this likely wasn’t a MVP (minimum viable product), but a fully-functional product that’s been released to the general public and marketed hard. Fortunately, an easy route to finding out how ready for primetime a product like this might be is to check how hard it’s been marketed.

Unsurprisingly, it’s been marketed pretty hard.

Note: I use screenshots below because I don’t want to give Quantumcloud any additional free advertising, but I can happily provide links to these pages if requested.

Slider Hero was advertised on Quantumcloud’s Twitter account…

Quantum cloud's Twitter post advertising Super Slider was the first key we might be looking at a dark pattern.
Quantum cloud’s Twitter post advertising Super Slider was the first key we might be looking at a dark pattern.

…on their Facebook page a day **before** creating their post on UXMastery…

Quantum cloud's Facebook post advertising Super Slider.
Quantum cloud’s Facebook post advertising Super Slider.

…it’s been posted for sale on Code Canyon…

Quantumcloud's Slider Hero for sale on CodeCanyon.com
Quantumcloud’s Slider Hero for sale on CodeCanyon.com

..it’s their featured them on their Theme Forrest page…

Slider Hero as Quantumcloud's featured plugin on ThemeForrest.
Slider Hero as Quantumcloud’s featured plugin on ThemeForrest.

..and, of course, it’s available on WordPress.

Slider Hero's page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.
Slider Hero’s page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.

I stopped there. I’ve seen all I need to see – this is no MVP.  This is a fully-functional, polished product Quantumcloud sought to advertise through their posting on UXMastery.com, amongst other places.

Interestingly over on WordPress.com, Slider Hero has only four total ratings, (all 5 stars).

Slider Hero's page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.
Slider Hero’s page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.

Three of those ratings come from accounts created within the last four months and have reviewed only a single product – Slider Hero – and have no other activity.

One reviewer of Slider Hero. One reviewer of Slider Hero. One reviewer of Slider Hero.

This, of course, smells of sham accounts created ahead of time to boost a plugin’s ratings through review manipulation.

In fairness to Quantumcloud, I couldn’t find evidence of similar vote manipulation occurring on other plugins they have available on WordPress. I’ll leave it to the reader whether or not to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Lesson: Always Critically Evaluate Content for Dark Patterns, Even on Trusted Sites

Quantumcloud has apparently tried very hard to dupe us. They have a vast social media footprint, and absolutely know what they’re doing when it comes to marketing WordPress plugins.

Given all of the evidence against them, we can only be left with the assumption that Quantumcloud’s post here was exactly what it seemed – a thinly-veiled, dark pattern advertisement that was part of a much wider project launch.

I’m ecstatic that @HAWK caught this post and brought it to the attention of the UXMastery users, as it provides a very good teaching moment for the community. In an era where we gather the information that encompasses our digital life through many channels and the President of the United States routinely accuses established and respected news sources of fake news, critically evaluating what we read imperative to uncovering the truth.

Wrapping it Up

Even on trusted sites such as this, there are those who would seek to use the trust that site has built with us to serve their own agenda.  We saw this on an enormous scale with Facebook’s scandal over Russian ads attempting to influence the US election.

Although this relatively innocuous post from a small web development firm on the other side of the world is far less impactful than Russian social media trolls on Facebook appear to have been, the concept of violating user trust via dark patterns is the same. It is absolutely a dark design pattern, and we as a UX community should treat these posts as such.

If nothing else, Quantumcloud has provided us with an excellent case study in why these types of dark patterns and posts – and these types of accounts – have no useful place, and should be banned.

Writing UX Books: The First Steps

The first step of any journey is always the most difficult. Writing UX books isn’t any different. It’s easy to make the decision to embark on a long writing project. Actually starting one is the tricky bit.
 
Some time ago, I made the choice to start my first book-length writing project, on niche UX specialties. Then, I strutted up to the edge of the Great White Abyss before pausing for some time. I kicked rocks and muttered about all the reasons why this was the absolute worst time to begin writing a book.
 
I have a 3-month old son that requires the usual amount of sleep sacrifice, which is “all the sleep.” I’m on a huge fitness push at the moment. This means sacrificing my lunch breaks to hit the gym while also limiting my calorie intake. The Rockies are on a playoff push, and Broncos season is starting.
 
I’m tired, sore, hungry, and distracted.
 
 
This will not be easy, but it will be worth it.

The First Steps

 
I’m working off of the premise that all writing projects are actually pretty similar. This applies even when writing UX books. In the interest of full disclosure, this is a good time to mention that this is not my first writing rodeo. I studied journalism in college. I worked as a sports writer for The Denver Daily News as well as the Denver Broncos. With the Broncos, I wrote for DenverBroncos.com and their “Gameday” magazine.
 
What many people don’t realize is that you can be successful in any writing project. The key is following a consistent, proven approach. There are literally thousands of guides to writing nonfiction books. While their approaches might vary, the basic advice is always the same.
 
1. Define your project. 2. Research your subject. 3. Plan & outline your writing with care. 4. Write, while sticking to your plan. 5. Edit and revise the ever-living crap out of your manuscript.
 
Currently, I’m sort of wandering between steps 1, 2, and 3.
 
This week, I brainstormed with the wonderful members of the UXMastery community. I gathered thoughts and feedback from the Twitterverse. This all helped define which UX niches have the most interest, and which I may have overlooked.
 
I’m also building a list of articles and books to read. This list will help get me up-to-speed on the various UX disciplines I plan on including in the book. The community at UXMastery has been brilliant in gathering resources. Ditto for my my friends on Twitter. To say that I have a lot of reading to do is an understatement.

The Outline – Writing UX Books With a Plan

 
Writing an outline for any writing project is the most useful start any project can have. It helps break a large project down into much smaller, easier-to-digest chunks. It makes the whole project seem way more manageable and organized.
 
Which is why it’s always the first major piece I start after defining a project.
 
For this large of the project, I actually have a few separate outlines. One will serve as a sort of master outline, covering the book as a whole. Another will serve as a template for each individual chapter. The introduction outline seeks to center the conversation around ethical UX. The summary outline will discuss the key takeaways.
 
The great Terry Pratchett once said “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” This is true of both manuscripts and outlines. I expect that my outline will change quite a bit as the project moves on.

The Coming Week

I have three goals this week.
 
I will narrow down the list of topic contenders to the most interesting and relevant. I will read as much as of my research materials as I can. I will firm up my master book outline.
 
The journey will be a long one. Already I can see that there is so much to do. It will be difficult.  Writing UX books is no marshmallow challenge.
 
But I have taken the first step into the Great White Abyss, and I am confident.

 

The UX Universe: The Saga of UX Niches Begins

This week, I’ve begun work on my first book-length UX project, which I’m calling The UX Universe until my brain cooperates and comes up with a snappier title.

The driving force behind the project is the variety of UX specialties that exist out there, with room for growth and improvement, but that get very little writing or discussion.

It could be that they’re highly technical.  Maybe they’re only used in very specific industries or contexts.

Possibly they’re just a little bit… uncouth.

My goal is to answer a few questions on each topic to provide a rundown of the work to new UX professionals or current UXers looking for a career change.

  • What is this specialty?
  • Why is it important?
  • Where is it most commonly utilized?
  • Who are some industry leaders in the field?
  • What are some best practices for this specialty?
  • What are the ethical considerations and concerns?

With the help of my friends over at UXMastery.com’s forums, I’m working on building a list of specialties to research.  These specialties include:

  • Childhood
  • Senior (age 65+)
  • “Adult Content” sites
  • Accessibility
  • Intranet/Corporate Wikis/Blogs
  • Dark Patterns1
  • 10 foot design3
  • Interactive Digital Signage2
  • Self-Driving Automotive UX
  • Virtual Reality (VR)
  • Augmented Reality (AR)
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Online Gambling
  • Gaming UX
  • Dark Web
  • Email
  • UX… In… SPAAAACE! (Space/Aviation UX)

What in the UX Universe am I missing?

The best book projects are collaborations.  This is no exception.  I want your feedback on what will make The UXiverse one of the best UX books you’ve ever read.

So how can you help?  Tell me: do you know of a UX niche that deserves some love and attention?  Do you have any good resources or professionals to reach out to?  Leave me a comment below, or contact me via email at Doug@DenverUXer.com or on twitter @5280_CS.

Modern Image Loading Best Practices (Via StackExchange.com)

Why answer StackExchange questions?

I’m a firm believer that you need to do something each day to build your skill set. Like so many other technology professionals, one of my favorite proving grounds is StackExchange.com.  I’ve long used the site to hone my front end development skills, but in the past year or so I’ve spent some time becoming a more active user on the UX Stack Exchange community.

These days, I try to drop by and answer a question there every day.  I do this for a few reasons.  Most importantly, answering questions allows me to tackle practical UX problems on a daily basis– problems that I am likely to encounter in the real world at some point in time.  It’s also a great way to meet other UXers, to build the community’s overall skills, and correct errors in assumptions or logic on my end.

Today a good question popped up, and I took a stab at answering it.

Spinner vs Blurry for image loading in 2017?

Q: My client is a photographer, his website contains 3 types of images:

1)Homepage Full screen background gallery images

2)Gallery slider images

3)Blog posts with images

I can’t decide which option to choose for each one.

When it comes to enjoying the experience of watching photos, is it ok to use the spinner?

Or should I blur them while they are loading?

A: Due to its perception of fast load speed and ability to give users content to focus on while waiting, use the ‘blurry loading’ technique on pages with multiple large images.

Much has been written about the need to load page content quickly, with some studies showing that even an extra half second delay can lead to a 20% increase in page abandonment.

The purpose of any loading progress indicator, whether a simple spinner or a more complex system, is to give feedback that the page is, in fact, loading, thus reducing the user’s perception of time passed and giving them a reason to wait. For this reason, however, progress indicators have come to have a negative connotation as users correlate their appearance with a lack of overall site speed.

Conversely, the blurry image approach is meant to give the impression of speed in loading without actually increasing page load time. Especially on pages with multiple large images, this approach works because it gives users content to focus on while waiting for other content to load. It provides faux speed to the user by giving the impression of faster loading without necessarily delivering extra speed.

It’s worth noting that there are several different implementations of the blurry image approach, each with its own load time and usage considerations.

Pectoralis Major’s points on the utility of lazy loading and the necessity of using a consistent approach across pages are well-founded, and should be adhered to if at all possible.

Red Swingline Staplers: My Best Communication Tool

Red Swingline Staplers as Communication Tools

I use my red Swingline stapler every day, though I can’t recall actually stapling anything in years.

The colour of the stapler is no coincidence, as my first encounter with a red Swingline was the cult classic Office Space. In the movie, Milton Waddams defends his prized piece of office equipment from theft and destruction at the hands of unscrupulous coworkers.

For Milton and millions of office workers worldwide, the red Swingline has become a symbol of those pieces of our work life for which we would, if ignored, set the world on fire.

My stapler’s daily use is as a reminder that everyone has red-stapler issues in their work life, and that a failure to communicate on those issues could have dire, unforeseen consequences.

It’s an important reminder, to be sure. Our placement in our company’s organization and workflow means that communicating as a UX professional is both imperative and, at times, extremely difficult.

Here are a few important lessons to learn to help avoid those red-stapler situations.

Learn and translate new languages

My wife and I do not speak the same language.

My wife is an Archivist, and I’m a User Experience Engineer. Unsurprisingly, there is very little crossover between the world of antiquities and modern technology and design. Any dinner table conversation that begins with the inane question of “How was your day?” can lead to a whole meal spent translating different professional terms and concepts into language the other can understand.

This simply goes to illustrate this point: no one speaks the same language. Our individual collections of idioms, slang, and jargon is unique to each of us. What’s more, our own language changes and evolves depending on the group of people we’re interacting with at the moment.

Read more at UXMastery.com


Related: Programmer Humor: How IT People See Each Other (Warning: Middle Fingers)

Kids’ UX: Why Childhood Experience Design is a Growing Art

Most of what we know about the psychology of HCI (human-computer interaction) and human learning principles is based around studies conducted on college students.

This is one of the primary complaints about the study of psychology in general. We have mountains of data pertaining to 18-25-year olds. Much of what’s been studied has varying applications to either the psychology of older adults or children. And very little about kids’ UX has been studied.

SesameStreet.com: While many websites can ignore Kids' UX, some websites must rely on it.
While many websites can ignore kids’ UX, some websites must rely on it.

As such, there is an opportunity for emerging specialists in the fields of either adult or childhood learning UX.  It’s a great skill to build, as we should all spend some time every day sharpening our UX tools.

To help us out, the Nielsen-Norman group completed a couple of interesting studies into children’s usability.  NNGroup.com produced 170 recommendations for childhood usability.  Additionally, they were able to make some general statements about how childhood usability differs from adult usability:

A matrix of the differences and similarities of adult vs. Kids' UX, taken from nngroup.com.
A matrix of the differences and similarities of adult vs. Kids’ UX, taken from nngroup.com.

Some of the more interesting findings:

  • Kids are generally much more wary of giving away personal information online, whereas adults are “recklessly willing to give out personal info.”
  • Multiple/redundant navigation is more confusing for children than it is for adults.
  • Kids often do not use the back button, whereas it’s an absolutely necessity for adults.
  • Real-life metaphors are much better digested by children than by adults.

If you’re interested in reading the full report, you can purchase a license to the report for $188.

A few additional resources:


Note that all screenshots used in this post are claimed as “Fair Use” for educational purposes.  To use them on your site in a commercial perspective, please be sure to contact their respective owners.

This post was driven by a discussion in the UXMastery.com community

Programmer Humor: How IT People See Each Other (Warning: Middle Fingers)

Programmer Humor: How IT people see each other.
We all have a lot of negative stigmas to overcome.

Though the above image is a great example of programmer humor, the very nature of human existence is a tribal one.  From time immemorial, humans have banded together in small groups for the purposes of protection, sharing of food resources, and camaraderie.

The modern workplace is a reflection of this, with a few twists.  Instead of protecting against beasts and burdens, we now protect against rogue stakeholders.  We share work resources like helpdesk professionals and software licenses instead of food.  And our camaraderie is limited in most cases to the 8-5 workday hours.

So it’s no surprise that we get content cropping up like the above image, submitted to reddit today by /u/super_good_aim_guy. It couldn’t be more accurate.

I couldn’t agree more with this matrix, especially as someone who’s worked as a Front End Developer, UX Engineer, UI Designer, Project Manager, and done some moderate System Admin work.

From a Designer perspective, which is closest to my current role as a UX Engineer, I’m not surprised that the view of Designers in general is pretty childish.  To Developers, we add seemingly random complexity without adding value.  QAs and Sysadmins tend to have a knowledge of the requirements, but lack an understanding of the “why” behind the knowledge.  Project Managers, who have a better overall view of a feature, tend to have a more favorable but practical view of our work.

So what can we do to increase our overall image and promote understanding of our design process among the other business tribes?

  • Include as many relevant people as when running through our baseline UX process.
  • Communicate our goals and and desires through whiteboarding and iterative designs involving our business partners.
  • Provide consistent, engaging designs.
  • Design with empathy for developers, QA pros, PM’s, and Sysadmins.

Taking these precautions should be a part of our everyday work, unless we want to be seen as childish monkeys.  That’s bad.

Homework Sucks: Why At-Home Design Challenges Are Useless

It’s no secret that I Love UXMastery.com.  I spend a lot of time at the forums there, and many of my UX-related posts originate from my responses to topics posted by others over there.

Today I was reading through one post in particular from a new-to-UX professional who was challenged to complete an at-home design task as part of a job interview.  Here’s how the candidate, misaif20, described the process:

“…This was a UX designer full time position at a saas company, their product was a recruitment software. I applied, the recruiter called and said that my profile was selected and explained me that there would be three phases : 1. Phone interview 2. Design Task (Which is given a time frame of 3 days) 3. Onsite interview with the hiring manager where I had to present the task and talk about design and UX decisions I took.

  1. Phone interview: Was good and the manager informed me that I have to focus on explaining more of a psychological approach. The recruiter got back to me saying that I had passed the first round of the interview.
  2. Design Task (To be performed at home) : As you can see in the document the task was given to me and was informed that I can work on the task for 3 days and send the links to the recruiter/manager via email. I did the task and got a reply from the hiring manager that I have unfortunately failed in the task.”

misaif20 was only asking for feedback on what was wrong with his design (shown here, for what it’s worth).  From what I could tell, he did a solid job working with limited information to come up with a valid response.

This post, however, is not about his design or response.  It’s about the fundamental flaws in this type of interview process.

To put it blatantly, take-home interview challenges for UX designers suck.

To understand why, we need to have a good understanding of what makes a UX designer truly good at what they do.  To be an effective UX professional, one needs a very particular set of base skills:

  • The ability to work on a deadline.
  • The ability to effectively communicate with stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • The ability collaborate and build a consensus by collecting and synthesizing data from multiple sources into a coherent design approach.
  • The ability to consistently apply a defined and tried design process to create great work.

The truth about take-home design challenges is that, apart from perhaps evaluating a candidate’s ability to work on a deadline, these challenges do very little to evaluate a candidate’s relevant skill set.

In a worst-case scenario, for the employer, what’s to stop someone from farming out the work to someone else and landing a job they are wholly unprepared for, on the basis of someone else’s work?

In a best case scenario, the work is a reflection of the candidate’s ability to work in the dark, with poorly-defined business requirements, unable to ask clarifying questions and unable to work with stakeholders.  The candidate ends up providing a best-guess solution based not on solving the problem, but what’s likely to allow them to compete with other candidates and cater the interviewer’s own biases.

Unless a business is wholly dysfunctional, this is a pretty useless test of skills.

Furthermore, putting a candidate through this rigorous process and then simply replying with a “Sorry, you weren’t selected” is completely unfair to someone who spent three days working on spec.  Each candidate that invests that much time deserves the respect to be given feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their designs.

From the perspective of the growth of the UX industry as a whole, it would be great if feedback happened.  In reality, it never does, unless a candidate asks for it, and sometimes not even then.

UX Interviewing Best Practices

I’m not against design challenges, per-se, but in my opinion they need to conform to a specific set of rules to give useful results:

Design challenges should be done in-person.

This helps the interviewers gain real perspective into a candidate’s interpersonal interactions and communication skills. It also helps interviewers visualize how a candidates synthesizes information from different sources to gain specific design direction.

Design challenges should not focus on the company’s existing or future products.

There’s too much bias built in for candidates to be truly successful on the existing product, and it’s patently unethical to ask candidates to complete work for free on the basis of the possibility of employment.  Additionally, could you honestly say that you wouldn’t use an awesome design by a candidate that you decided not to hire on the basis of personality or fit?  You’d have to be a stronger man than me, and personally that’s an ethical temptation that I would never want.

Design challenges should be done on a whiteboard.

A lot has been said about whiteboard interviews, both good and bad. Certainly it has its drawbacks, but they do allow for clear communication and invite collaboration. Additionally, the ability to effectively whiteboard ideas with stakeholders is paramount to the success of any UX designer. Now’s the time to find out just how good they are at it.

Design challenges should be done with a fixed time limit.

Apart from evaluating their ability to work on a deadline, setting a time limit helps to ensure that the candidate doesn’t get tied up too much in nitty-gritty details and focuses on achieving their goal. It also helps move things along in the event of multiple interviews being scheduled on the same day.

Each candidate needs to address a unique challenge of relatively equal difficulty.

This helps avoid biases against specific design solutions and focuses the interview on how candidates think and interact with business stakeholders.

Speaking of stakeholders, business stakeholders should be represented at the interview by the interviewers.

The candidate should be able to ask clarifying questions across business units. This helps evaluate the candidate’s ability to ask appropriate questions, to work across business lines, and build a consensus before diving into a project.

There should be some sort of monkey wrench or two thrown into the works – a requirement that changes mid-design, a stakeholder that gets replaced with a new individual with new ideas, or an increase/decrease in time to deliver a design.

This helps evaluate how candidates react to a changing design environment, an important aspect of their overall ability as designers.

Feedback should be the rule, not the exception.

Dealing with feedback is an important part of being an effective designer.  Receiving and synthesizing feedback into improved designs and self-improvement is imperative.

What’s more, anyone who’s spent significant time doing design work for you deserves your honest assessment.  It helps them grow, it helps the industry grow, and it helps your team grow.

For what it’s worth, you can find a wealth of simple UX challenges all over the internet, but some of my favorites are here.

As designers, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity; to be evaluated for our relevant skills when applying for a job; and to be placed on a level playing field.  Take-home design challenges don’t deliver on these basic privileges.

That’s why homework sucks.