March 19, 2020

The Case for Usability and Accessibility

Accessibility and usability are often confused and used interchangeably. We break down the difference between the two and make the case for accessibility being a positive design constraint.

The Difference Between Accessibility and Usability

We’ve previously talked about Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (1994) could apply to emerging technologies like VR to create more immersive experiences, but before and we consider the potential for creating, we should also consider that those exciting new experiences can’t be enjoyed by many people who’d otherwise want to.

This is because usability and accessibility are related but not interchangeable:

  • Usability: concerned with “user-friendliness” in that a given interaction is designed so a user can easily figure out how to negotiate that interaction (and remember how to do it) — while deriving a feeling of satisfaction.
  • Accessibility: in the context of the Internet, the World Wide Web Consortium defines web accessibility as encompassing all disabilities that affect access to the Internet such as:
    • auditory
    • cognitive
    • neurological
    • physical
    • speech
    • visual

Something could be very user friendly for an even broader population of users, but it can’t be user-friendly for additional segments of that population because it’s not accessible to them (i.e. not even usable). Just as importantly, web accessibility also accounts for people without what might be defined as legal disabilities (such as temporary injuries) and situations that otherwise affect usage for everyone (loud environments or sunny conditions). In short, accessible design means designing for all.

Compromise Versus Constraint

If we recall the seven principles of Universal Design, we find that accessible design is really an outcome of good design in general. The Interaction Design Foundation relates each principle to accessibility as follows:

  • Equitable Use: accommodates users with diverse ability levels
  • Flexible Use: ambidextrous to accommodate right and left-handed people
  • Simple, Intuitive Use: simplified and structured delivery of complex information and prompts that help complete the task
  • Perceptible Information: make vital information readable and reinforce it redundantly such as using both pictures and text
  • Tolerance for Error: arrange and configure elements that minimize accidents such as making sure someone could only book something in the future
  • Low Physical Effort: reduce tedious actions
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use: accommodates different types of bodies and mobility ranges

Yet not just obeying these principles but taking them to the next level to increase accessibility needn’t be seen as a limiting factor, but as a constraint. As Jesse Hausler says:

“Accessibility will not force you to make a product that is ugly, boring, or cluttered. It will introduce a set of constraints to incorporate as you consider your design. These design constraints will give you new ideas to explore that will lead to better products for all of your users.”

The Takeaway

Given the sheer volume of potential users of a publicly available digital experience like a website or app, the emphasis on accessibility in those contexts is understandable. However, it’s important to also realize that accessibility applies beyond those contexts. It’s a mindset of allowing more people to use and enjoy what you’re making in a way that absolutely does not play into the risk of “if it’s for everybody, it’s for nobody.”

In a competitive environment where we have to stand out or target specific niches, that will still be possible and a challenge regardless — “boring” is a consequence of comprehensively boring design or marketing, not because of maximizing accessibility. Besides, we’re already moving past the importance of surface-level “delightful” design towards design that favors user experience, which inevitably should include the experience of diverse users.

As long as we continue to emphasize accessibility and inclusion in designs for people, especially in non-digital contexts such as fashion, we’re going to see more and more options of how innovative (and sustainable), beautiful and accessible design will look and feel. This means new avenues of creativity and innovation. Whenever we get that combination right, humanity benefits and the designers that find it will get paid.

February 10, 2020

The uncanny resemblance in editorial and product illustrations

Thanks to the ubiquity of tech products, we’re all familiar with the flat colorful illustration style that accompanies them and now, many other situations that call for illustrations. How did this style get popular and how did it spill over into editorial drawings too?

What the style is

In his blog Subtraction, graphic designer and former Design Director for the New York Times Khoi Vinh calls the style “safety minimalism” and tracks this trend on a Pinterest board aptly titled “monoculture illustrations.” This style is defined by its particular approach to:

  • Colors: range from primary to bright pastels
  • Figures: clean drawing, and frequently rendered with vectors
  • Details: highly abstracted
  • Shading: geometric if used at all
  • Composition: minimal with occasional limited elements in the background

Khoi summarizes the style as having a sense of infantile simplicity despite the fact it’s used to “depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things.”

How we got here

It’s not necessarily clear when or how this trend started, but Jared Long of The Startup for one, thinks it could go back to a renewed interest in screen printing along with a departure from vector-based 3D skeuomorphic (meaning to look more photorealistic) designs back in the early 2010s. At this period, the move towards a flatter aesthetic was to stand out, as most things do before they become popular.

Since then, however, the style has become widespread and has a particularly strong association with tech products, particularly due to efficiency. This makes sense given that doing illustrations this way ticks off the following:

  • Approachable: the “safeness” of safety minimalism means the illustrations are easy to understand and approachable, which is important for tech products that are more complex. It’s also worth mentioning that simple graphics are much easier to animate as well, which also play into the accessibility factor.
  • Adaptable: the simplicity of the style means it could be executed in-house, where designers could theoretically learn to imitate the aesthetic if not adapt it from readily available stock assets. Designing it digitally also removes the unpredictability of analog mediums, allowing for precision and creative control.
  • Economical: saving on the time of researching and hiring an illustrator with a particular style as well as the cost of producing large amounts of the illustrations needed.

Vinh suggests that the illustrations could, in fact, be handled by the same designers that also designed the app they were promoting versus a professional illustrator. All that’s required is the same tools available to every designer: a vector drawing and an image editing app. “Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance,” Vinh says. “That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.”

The jump to publications

In a Quartz article by Anne Quito, she echoes the aforementioned factors that have made the “flatter, sharper, and arguably more generic” illustrations ubiquitous, but also adds others that explain how the style also increasingly appears in publications:

  • Versatility: simpler graphics not only scale better on all types of displays, they tend to load faster as well.
  • Deadlines: digital illustrations are (assuming they’re layered and organized) easier to make modifications to, allowing illustrators to address client requests faster.
  • Taste: flat illustrations have always appeared in publications. Qito cites the influence of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s clean shapes in the 1980s, considered “a pleasing counterpoint to the scrapbook punk aesthetic of the decade.”
  • Social Media: in the article, illustrator Xiao Hua Yang points out illustrations that are well received on social media will inevitably spark curiosity into how they were made.

However, Qito concludes that it is in the end, all about economics, citing a 2018 global survey of over 1,400 illustrators by Ben O’Brien where 70% of them believed they couldn’t survive on drawing alone. Further, she found that New York magazine, when adjusted for inflation, paid 30% more in the ’70s for smaller spot illustrations than what they offer today.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact we see this flattened visual style everywhere, this is by no means an indictment of the style itself and especially not the people who produce it, whether it’s their personal style or they create in it out of necessity. After all, if it ensures a regular stream of income, why not?

Unfortunately, what we see as current trends are often the four-way collision of economics, audience and client tastes, increasingly sophisticated digital tools and the needs of creatives. There’s no shortage of homogeneity around us whether it’s Instagram, cafes, or just general bits of design.

We recognize illustrators and other artists creating with the stroke of a pen, brush, stylus or mouse have the unique power to create very appealing and specific visual images by themselves and often without having to leave their workspace. Through their work, they have the ability to bring us deeper into text stories that would otherwise be passed up by today’s shorter attention spans that are compounded by declining literacy.

For that reason, despite our emphasis on photos, we’ve made efforts to employ and fairly compensate illustrators to create work in a style that values their abilities as much as their time. This has ultimately helped us to tell better stories that might otherwise not have been possible with any other medium. As such, we’ll close by inviting you to check out some of our stories that have been visually brought to life by Charis Poon, Jeremy Leung, Joan Wong, Naomi Otsu and Jonathan Jay Lee.


February 6, 2020

Is crowdsourced branding ever a good choice?

With the advent of increased connectivity, crowdsourcing has been used to accomplish countless goals including branding. But should such an important part of a company be left up to anonymous masses?

At the national level

With crowdsourcing having become a firmly embedded practice for brands, the concept is still being applied to all levels all the way up to and including branding whole countries. For one, the United Arab Emirates recently decided on a new logo and slogan, “Make it happen.”

Thankfully, to do that, it didn’t task citizens of the world with actually submitting new designs, but rather by voting for one of three logos. In the end, the design that won out was a seven-line map of the UAE (representing each of the emirates) in the red, green and black colors of the national flag after scoring the majority of 10.6 million votes cast.

It’s also not the only country to seek out the public in helping to brand itself: Back in 2016, New Zealand got as far as choosing a new design for its flag — one that replaces the Union Jack on it with the silver fern, another strong national symbol — out of a staggering 10,000 designs and then out of a long list of 40. In the end, however, that winning design by Kyle Lockwood didn’t pass the national vote between switching to his flag and keeping the original (his scored 43.1%). The cost to not rebrand in this case? $26 million New Zealand Dollars, or almost $17 million American dollars.

It’s trickier than it seems

We’re no strangers to the notorious design contest and unpaid spec work, but is all crowdsourcing done this way? Looking around the Internet, it doesn’t seem so simple. Taken at face value, crowdsourcing simply means leveraging the resources of a large group of outside parties to achieve a certain goal.

But even when we narrow it down to crowdsourced branding, it’s still not that simple because depending on the context, a brand is sourcing different elements that will eventually contribute to producing something carrying the brand message or image:

  • Opinion: much like the above examples with voting on pre-selected choices, this outsources the decision making power for the voting period depending on whether you agree with the results, or reject it simply because you don’t like the most popular choice.
  • Ideas: similarly with calls for suggestions or responses to prompts (such as asking questions on Instagram), this outsources the creativity and the time to write a suggestion or submit an idea that could be implemented immediately, not at all or far into the future.
  • Content: just like ideas, crowdsourcing content is popular with contests, campaigns and ads, because the participation is once again voluntary and intrinsically motivated, leading to a large number of high quality submissions.
  • Assets: this is where much of the focus on crowdsourced branding lies, particularly with logos and understandably so, because we can clearly see where it results in quantifiable rejected designs, wasted hours and lost compensation.

The Takeaway

We can say right away that for a brand’s defining visual assets like logos, most would recommend the average person doesn’t make their own unless you’re say, MAEKAN founder Alex Maeland, himself a talented designer and photographer. Otherwise, a crowdsourced brand logo or similarly important asset sends a strong message in itself: that the brand didn’t or doesn’t intend to do either the soul-searching of knowing what they represent — or the legwork of sourcing skilled designers to work closely with to execute their vision.

For opinions (including votes) and ideas, where the participation is voluntary and the minimum lift for the crowd in question is assumed to be low, we’d say it’s a valuable way to get feedback and perspective from “outside the box” that smaller pools of talent (say, a start-up team like ours) can find ourselves in.

What we’re left with is the fine line around content, which we need to observe carefully: When is it presenting an enticing prize to a crowd of fans and when is it dangling a carrot to a crowd of people willing to work for free? Large companies that can afford creative teams still use UGC and are praised for the refreshing content produced, but evidently that’s employed as part of a more extensive strategy and toolset.

Maybe the key here is the mix: a test of how much of a brand’s identity is suitable for crowdsourcing hinges on how much participation the brand wants (or how much power to outsource) — and more importantly, how much the crowd cares to contribute.

December 12, 2019

When less is not more: How typefaces are swinging away from peak minimalist

It seems we’ve hit a point where “less is actually less,” at least with regards to typography in brands. We take a look at the re-emergence of more embellished typefaces in a market that’s likely had enough of peak minimalism.

How we got here

Eliza Brooke for Vox points out the association between minimalist design (and typefaces) with the expediency offered by lifestyle start-ups: “Rather than being descriptive of the product itself, startup minimalism indicates how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile,” she says. “It promises no bullshit and no imposition on your busy schedule.”

It could be said that this level of approachability, which Rachel Hawley describes as “creepy cheerfulness” wasn’t just the doing of new, then-exciting start-ups but a series of factors that followed bigger shifts in technology and culture:

  • The Biggest Players Move: Visual rebrands of big companies such as Google and Facebook in the mid-2010s generated ripples that led newcomers and competitors alike to follow suit.
  • Mobile-first: Simpler fonts are often associated with designing for mobile experiences.
  • Load Times: Likewise, simpler elements mean less information to load and therefore, faster load times on devices.
  • Effort: No one’s saying that sans serif fonts are always easier to develop, but the absence of serifs, representing an entirely new set of design decisions, certainly streamlines the process a little more — especially when your competitors and the rest of the industry are doing the same.
  • Effort: It’s not just the companies that are demanding simplicity in visual language. Howard Belk explained the association customers have, in between simple messaging and the honesty of the company they’re interacting with. For this reason, branding that’s visually easy to process gives assurances to customers having difficulty making sense of a complex world.

What is Didone?

Didones are a category of typeface that emerged in the late 18th century but was not coined until the ‘50s. The name combines the surnames of famous typefounders Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni. This category is characterized by:

  • Serifs: Serif typefaces have embellishments at the end of the strokes in their letters (as opposed to sans-serif typefaces like the ones used on this website). Didones have long narrow serifs.
  • Contrast: Didone has a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Vertical weight axis: Vertical strokes tend to be thicker.
  • Modern: They were and are considered more “modern” due to their simplified and relatively unadorned appearance, especially in contrast to the Old Styles that were more defined by the hand lettering styles of scribes.

Despite its long history, Didone’s are still in use, including the eponymous typefaces Didot and Bodoni. Modern typefaces like Didones represent a more complete departure from the typefaces that resembled the handwritten tradition such as Old Style (also called humanist).

The pendulum swings back

Hawley chalks the return of Didones to several factors that accompany the transition away from Peak Minimalism:

  • Luxury: the re-introduction of embellishments with Didones adds a sense of luxury and sophistication to the brand that’s being promoted with the typeface.
  • Startups and Youth: Hawley notes the emergence of Didones for new companies and start-ups marketed toward millennials such as wine club Winc.
  • Gender: Similarly, Didones have been appearing in the logos of brands marketed towards women including clothing retailer Modcloth and Flesh, a shade-inclusive makeup brand.

As the shift in the opposite direction continues, we think it’s likely more brands will return to reflecting their brand, what they’re selling and the audiences they’re targeting in their choice of typefaces (being more specific).

The Takeaway

While this analysis only looks at Didones, only one category of typeface, we’ve noticed other brands seek to visually design themselves with typefaces that buck the stripped-down minimalist trend we saw at the beginning of the decade until now.

This could mean keeping the same minimalist typeface albeit with bolder, louder fonts, drawing from the past with typeface families that are time-tested or doing something completely different with custom typefaces or hand-drawn branding.

Unsurprisingly, when a given “look” or style becomes so popular that the market becomes saturated to the point it becomes the new normal, it becomes that much more important for a brand to stand out and for a more refreshing human touch to come back to the visual language. As Hawley puts it:

“Within the broader minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones sate their viewers’ need for a reprieve from the visual austerity of the past decade, and the political austerity for which it has served as the default style. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an advertisement for mattresses I can’t afford, of all things, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded by advertisements that, with rare exceptions, look more or less the same.”

November 28, 2019

On the Need to Diversify Standardized Visuals and "Re-Image" the World

Whether we realize it or not, widely copied and distributed visual elements like graphics and photos represent and shape our consciousness. With the rise of diverse emoji, there’s never been more momentum to give these “standard” visuals a much-needed update.

Sharing the Space is Important

Icons are distilled representations of reality, usually used to efficiently communicate and be easily recognized in highly visible places. Copied and distributed often enough, they repeatedly influence our consciousness, both online and off.

“Space also includes the digital world, which unlike physical space, is theoretically limitless.The digital realm is governed by an audience’s access and attention, and value is determined by the reach and visibility of competing content,” says Erika Kim, head curator for the Noun Project. “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

In her article on gendered depictions of different jobs and roles in icons, she lists three ways graphic designers can even the playing field:

1. Make equal depictions in terms of quantity and quality: Male and female equivalents of a given role such as astronaut, as well as even application of design principles to avoid unintended meaning (which elements are larger, in front, or placed in a position of authority or power?)

2. Appropriate depictions:  Aside from ending the blatant perpetuation of outdated stereotypes (say, anachronistic or inappropriate depictions of women in certain jobs), Kim encourages creating less commonly seen depictions that challenge rigid gender roles.

3. Meta Data: Consistency in the titles and tags between variations on a common image. For instance, a male and female icon titled as “business person” would have similar tags or synonyms such as ‘manager’, ‘leader’ and the like instead of a different set of meta data for each.

It’s a big lift, but it’s not that heavy

If the popularization of emoji is any indication, similar updates in diversity to standardized assets are quantum leaps, stepping stones or no big deal at all, depending on who you ask. After emojis became more widespread beyond Japan with Apple’s iOS 5 in 2011, the world adapted to using the icons in addition to just text and the more basic emoticon.

After Apple introduced racially diverse emoji in 2015, there were concerns over whether they would be abused or introduce new problems into a space that didn’t have them before. That said, some studies have shown they’ve been largely used as intended and have been a net positive for inclusiveness. Just like the many special characters than your computer is capable of producing (you’ve never heard of the interrobang‽), even if you don’t need to use them, someone else most certainly does.

Similarly, having images that represent the diverse people in the real world means a lot to those traditionally excluded from these spaces. For one, TONL is a stock photography company that features culturally diverse people. But more importantly, it represents both a demand for that diversity from paying customers, but also that there’s still room for change in seemingly calcified symbols representing objective truths.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s emoji or stock assets like photos, footage, icons and graphics, these elements are intended for wide distribution and can appear at multiple corners of online spaces, shaping our collective consciousness. This analysis isn’t the end-all be-all take on how to approach diversity in standardized visuals, and there are likely to be hurdles and friction on the way, but we recognize the need for that diversity and that the updating process is long overdue. The ever-shifting ways in which we communicate about a complex world is going to require more nuance, and that can only be conveyed by having greater diversity in our visual choices.

August 1, 2019

Still Sounds About Right—The Need for Audio Feedback from Devices


If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Put another way, if a phone receives a call and the phone is set to silent, does it make an action? Of course it does—whether we can hear it or not. Device sounds, although we still might not pay them much attention, have been giving us the feedback we need for decades, even as tech becomes less and less mechanical.

Thomas McMullan spoke with developers and musicians to understand how the sounds of our machines (those that sound to represent activity) evolved and where they’re going.


  • Jim Reekes: Behind some of Apple’s most iconic audio effects. Used a recording of his old camera for the screenshot sound on Macs. The association between that sound and cameras persists today—even for people who only use digital ones.
  • Ken Kato: Composed the Windows 98 theme, sound designer for Halo 4 with 343 Industries, and current audio director for the VR studio Drifter Entertainment.
  • Steve Milton: Co-founder of Listen, a “sensory experience” company responsible for the sound design of apps including Skype and Tinder.
  • Becoming Real: London-based electronic musician.
  • Lindsay Corstorphine: Music facilitator and band member of Sauna Youth.

Their Quotes

  • Jim Reekes: “Audio is still ignored for the most part. Part of the problem is how good design is invisible.”
  • Ken Kato: “When I made (the Windows 98 bootup sound), Microsoft started out with about 20 sound designers, and there was a little contest, like a league competition. We went up against each other making sounds, and then a committee would choose which sound they liked.”
  • Steve Milton: “The biggest and most obvious is the shift away from skeuomorphic sound. Early sounds would attempt to mimic or sample the real world — quacks, pianos, trash, etc. But as the visual design moved away from skeuomorphism, we also start to hear more abstract expressions, sonically.”
  • Becoming Real: “Machines have become quieter, smaller, less noticeable, as the importance isn’t so much what the technology looks like — it’s how it can perform for us.”
  • Lindsay Corstorphine: “Recently, I’d say sound design has become less ostentatious and more functional, but with a hint of sentimentality for a mechanical past.”

Why this matters

In a previous analysis on usability, we referenced Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface design, which were created in 1994 but remain relevant to this day. The first on the list is “visibility of system status” where the system gives users feedback on what is going on. Following up after that is “match between system and the real world,” which means, “The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases, and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.”

We can apply this principle to why we still need very tangible signs from machines that, as they get more advanced, produce fewer and fewer sounds when they function. Custom tones help us differentiate messages from different contacts.

Haptic feedback, like vibrations, can do the same or simply lets us know when we fail to unlock our phone with our fingerprints. These are the machine-made “words” that we require to understand for context, but rather than come up with completely original sounds or icons it can be easier to re-use designs that draw existing associations developed through time. We don’t use floppy disks anymore, but the image is often used as the icon for the ‘save’ button in apps and the one-dot-to-two-dot ‘share’ icon has now joined that collective memory.

In the same way, we associate non-verbal sounds like the shutter with photo taking, rapid beeping with timers or alarms, honking with cars, and the sad trombone with failure or disappointment. For now, the associations persist because we still have a “match between system and the real world.”

What sounds right now might not tomorrow

Reekes raises an interesting premise of customizing the sounds of our silent electric cars of the future much like we would the ringtone. As Milton said, the sounds being produced are no longer based on real-world counterparts but are created from zeroes in a digital space.

As the sonic signature of machines changes as their mechanical parts decrease, we might see a greater need for new sounds to stand in and give feedback, and users and sound designers will become less bound by a longing for the past and any obligation to stick to history. We might end up eventually retiring the iconic shutter sound and only come to recognize some new never-before-heard tone instead.

July 22, 2019

Dark Patterns Get You To Buy Things You Don't Want

Dark patterns on the web are bad for consumers

Dark patterns, a practice that uses sketchy UX to trick users into making unintended decisions, are nothing new and pollute many e-commerce sites across the net. If you’ve ever booked a flight online, you’ve probably seen callouts informing you that only a few seats were left, a great way to increase your purchasing urgency. Chances are though, the flight is not anywhere near fully booked, and you’ve been suckered into making quick decisions. These UX techniques are becoming even more prevalent, often to the detriment of consumers.

Dark patterns deceive consumers

Dark patterns are a byproduct of proactive and often nefarious human designs. Companies seek to maximize profits by nature and employ many techniques that can legally achieve this end. Web designers leverage their understanding of online habits with behavioral patterns to optimize certain responses. Major tech companies have enlisted the help of behaviorists and gambling experts to redesign apps in the past as a means of increasing engagement. Casinos are regulated entities—apps and online shopping stores are not. However, consumers are none the wiser, often acting upon false stimuli to make brash decisions out of fear of missing out on deals. Many concerned parties are now paying attention.

Regulators are on the prowl

In an environment of heightened scrutiny, regulators are keeping tabs on a wide number of tech companies. Facebook comes to mind as it looks to expand its e-commerce capabilities, especially through payment initiatives like Libra. Regulatory bodies exist to protect consumers from abuses, including dark patterns like those you see across e-commerce websites. One problem remains: how can regulators properly address what is a dark pattern, and what is deemed acceptable? In addition, how can consumers better protect themselves to avoid falling into these traps? This will be a long battle, especially given how slow regulators both pick up on abuses and enact laws.

Result chasing lead to dark patterns

Where do we draw the line between crafty salesmanship and shady user manipulation? Perhaps this is subjective, but dark patterns are a systemic result of bad incentives. E-commerce sites track an array of metrics, though some are more salient than others. You’ll often hear about Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) or Average Order Value (AOV), data-points that all platforms seek to improve. How do sites achieve these targets? Either through cutthroat pricing or dubious techniques, tricking consumers into buying items they either don’t want or need. Companies create urgency by creating false discounts, fake purchases, and fake reviews. In addition, achieving such goals lead to unintended and negative consequences. By selling more stuff, especially stuff we don’t need, we deplete resources in the name of growth. These dark patterns supercharge metrics like GMV and AOV, but subsequently, lead to more long-term problems.

A creative solution?

The ultimate goal is to protect and better inform consumers. There is nothing wrong with optimizing e-commerce stores, so long as the techniques are honest and transparent. Since businesses generally have no incentive to do so, how can consumers fight back? One way would be to simply boycott firms that use such techniques. Consumers can and do band together to make their voices heard—we could expect a similar response if companies keep abusing these processes. In addition, some e-commerce platforms can highlight their sales processes and responsible practices to entice shoppers, reaping the benefits through stronger engagement. Until then, consumers will just need to keep their eyes peeled.

July 11, 2019

How will immersive new media push the evolution of usability?

Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for Interface Design (1994) remain relevant today even for UI in modern software, websites, apps and even video games. We’re no stranger to these guidelines being bent or broken for artistic or commercial merit, but how will the playing field change when the interfaces they were designed for eventually evolve to become us?

The Original Heuristics

For reference, heuristics are “any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical, or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal.” These can also be used to decrease the cognitive load on a person to speed decision-making. Here is a brief summary of Nielsen’s original 10:

  • Visibility of system status: The system gives users feedback about what is going on.
  • Match between system and the real world: The system favors language and concepts familiar to the user and real-world conventions.
  • User control and freedom: Users have the freedom to undo or exit functions executed by mistake.
  • Consistency and standards: No guesswork as to whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.
  • Error prevention: Careful design that eliminates the potential for errors.
  • Recognition rather than recall: Visuals are used extensively and instructions accessible to minimize the user’s memory load.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use: Expert users can access accelerators, unseen to novices, that speed up interaction.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design: Information provided is inconspicuous, relevant and efficient.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Errors identified in plain language (no codes), and constructive solutions are offered.
  • Help and documentation: Easy to search, focused on completing the user’s task and of appropriate length.

The spectrum of immersiveness and user agency

While the above guidelines make perfect sense, developers have always interpreted or flouted them for commercial, artistic or other intentions in social media, video games, apps, websites or any other kind of interactive software.

For one, some games such as Wild West-themed Red Dead Redemption 2 offer the option of switching off the heads-up display (HUD) that includes the map, meaning players have to rely on landmarks and directions from non-player characters to find their way (just like we used to).

If you’ve mistakenly clicked into a 3rd party site when simply trying to clear a pop-up ad, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten a taste of Dark UX to use a less colorful term. Some are not as downright manipulative to squeeze that one-time action out of you, but rather are a combination of more subtle interface design decisions meant to loosen our purse strings or keep us engaged with—or dependent on—a given digital medium.

Depending on the creator’s intentions, we the users will find ourselves falling somewhere on a spectrum with every digital medium we experience, where total unconscious immersion lies at one end and complete freedom and control at the other.

Tomorrow’s interfaces and the blurring of reality

As we get closer to developing better and better media forms that involve the user on a deeper level, many of the above heuristics may become locked to certain benchmarks and inseparably merged as part of a new standard for user experience: total immersion.

Nielsen’s original usability heuristics were created in 1994 and certainly remain relevant beyond the software they were intended for originally. Today, the boundaries between software, apps and websites are constantly being blurred depending on how and how much the user can interact with them. Even though we’ve come a long way from a time when the only input devices were mouse and keyboard, and we’re still busy exploring the potential of capacitive surfaces beyond the touch screen, the interface and user remain separated at the hands.

But because the 10 heuristics have always favored the user anyway—their end goal is to reduce cognitive load and ease decision making—the interface will eventually do away with separate peripherals and the user will become the input device.

When eye movements, speech, and even thought become an industry standard input for interfaces, we’re going to reach a point where the usability of all apps, sites and software is going to be evaluated on the by-then increased user expectations (for example “the program responds quickly to my gestures in the air, moves the displayed area with my eye movements or pauses when my mind is focused elsewhere.”)

By this time, anything that delays this or responds in a non-intuitive way will effectively “break” the immersion, violating several heuristics in one fell swoop and thus affect a program’s usability—what we’d currently call “buggy” or laggy controls.

Art and industry

Regardless of whether an app, program, game or simulation is for commercial or artistic purposes, a creator’s goal is always strong user engagement whether that be evaluated in how often they revisit it or how long they spend with it. Just as long-form journalism, feature length films and perhaps eventually even podcasts decline in popularity, creators need to keep asking themselves how their respective arts and industries might change as attention spans shift and shrink while the path of least resistance shortens.

When VR and other yet to be defined new mediums reach a high enough standard to become widespread and normalized in our everyday lives (we’re getting there), we will have to figure out how we address the divide between this world and the creator’s. Photographer, artist and VR filmmaker Julia Leeb uses VR to so that her audiences can experience the terror of war in an uncomfortable but physically safe manner. What are the implications of future artists that remove user agency to execute their visions? How will industry standards evolve to address Dark UX in commercial VR apps? Should we establish upper limits—a “no go” zone—for how immersive something can be? Or will we simply treat new mediums as just another field of rabbit holes, each of which we impressionable humans can get lost in, as we have tended to do?

You might say we’ve watched one episode of Black Mirror too many, but it never hurts to be mindful of how we use the new things we create, but also how we can be used by them in return.

June 6, 2019

Yasunori Fujikawa discusses ONFAdd's approach to product design for an evolving world

At first glance, ONFadd appears as a product brand focused on technical function. The predominately black tones give off a utilitarian angle. But beneath the surface is a much larger play at hand.

ONFAdd is part of a larger agency, known as NEWPEACE, which at its core tackles cultural pillars in flux including politics, gender, travel, and more. Each product exists as a potential solution to a challenge identified by the ONFAdd team including storage, clothing, and accessory lines. We connected with ONFAdd’s Yasunori Fujikawa for insight into the brand, its structure and how they view their contribution to the changing world and traveling lifestyle many are adopting.

See ONFAdd’s whole product line over at their site.

How did the idea for ONFAdd begin?

The catalyst was one of our team members who hates carrying bags around took it on himself to prototype a “bag that can only hold a MacBook Air.”

It was conceptualized as “hands-free, light-weight,” but this was also reinforced with elements of traditional Japanese considerations towards mobility, which helped us to realize our first collection “Inspired by Japanese culture.”

Since then, we’ve taken the theme of “mobility” beyond just Japan. It wasn’t meant as some lofty abstract concept, but rather starting from your immediate needs and making your own product to fit those needs.

What are your thoughts on the future of work and travel?

Aside from technological progress (especially mobile cloud-based AI), there’s going to be a few important changes to the context of work headed our way:

  • Diminished need for a “dedicated workspace”
  • Diminished need for people who can only judge in a “yes/no” logical framework
  • Greater need for people who can work creatively within different paradigms

Travel will be a key means of achieving that. People come up with new things by going to different places, walking through them and intermingling with communities and knowledge that’s accumulated through history. I think this is how we go about “making the world a better place” in that work starts to resemble travel for leisure and travel for leisure starts to resemble work. Eventually, the two will merge to the point they’re like any other “human activity.”

Can you tell me a bit about the sister agency? How does ONFAdd interact with that?

ONFAdd is a division of a company called NEWPEACE and its mission is to update an outdated society.

NEWPEACE is a made up of a group of small teams tasked with accomplishing that through a different theme including love, gender, politics, ideology, housing, food, education, sports, etc. Within the scope of these themes, team members conduct both client work and their own businesses.

ONFAdd is actually positioned as a company within a team whose theme is “dwelling.” One of the conditions for each theme, essentially each team, is that there has to be more than one business in it. For people trying to update the world, I think it’s important both internally and externally to commit to risk-taking using your own company. Externally it shows to a client that you’re responsible and prepared, while internally, you learn more and accumulate more knowledge about the client you can share, which makes things more efficient.

How do you come up with products? What is your process?

A vision of the world you want to create, a certain function, material, social trend, traditions from around the world and things like that can all be starting points. Oftentimes, it starts with whatever inspirations the members in charge of product design have, but sometimes it stems from something an external partner brings up. Beyond that, the general product development workflow stays basically the same: you source materials, make the first prototype, and then balance function, meaning, and economics through three rounds of prototyping.

How many of your solutions are based on traditional problems (i.e. traveling or carrying heavy items vs. digital problems)?

Our team members all have a strong interest in solving “universal” problems. Because we’re also a product-based brand, for the time being, most of our approaches are naturally geared toward realizing physical goals. So building on those two points, we’ll be looking to solve a lot of traditional problems regardless of if that problem is an old one with a long history. Rain Socks, which emerged with yesterday’s rare sneaker boom comes to mind, That concept ended up solving the fairly traditional problem of shoes getting wet in the rain, but the catalyst of the idea is quite modern.

Do you think there’s a Japanese approach to how ONFAdd solves problems? What is that process like?

We think of things subtractively. When you have a lot of problems you want to solve at the same time, you don’t achieve that by increasing the number of functions, but instead keeping its physical nature and shape as abstract and simple as possible so it can be used in more ways. That would be the most Japanese approach, I think. During product development, the design gets simpler and simpler and we rarely add features after the first sample.

What has been the most interesting product you’ve designed so far?

We emphasize the following factors with our items:

  • Hackable: It can be used to “hack” existing systems in a way that makes it more convenient for you as opposed to the original intended usage.
  • Adaptable: It’s open to change and flexibly adapts to us and our environments and situations without assuming a single correct answer.
  • Scaled Back: It distances itself from the value system of “more is more and bigger is better” and focuses on capturing the richness you find at the edge of one’s imagination.

Of the items that fit the above that many of our members like, it would probably be the Rain Socks. What started as conveniently-sized foot covers for chemical plants that also increased the durability of the soles effectively became an essential item for sneakerheads. I would say that makes it a perfect case that fulfills those requirements. At the very least, it’s an interesting product even if you just look at the sales and market response.

Do you think about some product’s lifelines? For example, the rain socks only last for 10 km which some have said isn’t very sustainable.

The team definitely recognizes that sustainability is a premise that can’t be ignored. I think brands that don’t care about that now will eventually be seen as uncool from an ethics standpoint. Most of our items are about as robust as other brands, so I don’t think the life cycle is necessarily short. However, for products that touch the ground and where the primary goal is to keep shoes clean, it’s hard to match the durability of other items, but we’d definitely like to keep improving in terms of durability and adopting environmentally friendly materials.

What types of products do you want to explore in the future?

We’re currently developing a line of super basic bags catered to a lifestyle in motion that isn’t fixed in place. The plan is to make this line the go-to for the pioneers of the segment. We hope to create the durability and timelessness that will keep it at the forefront of culture even 100 years from now, much like Louis Vuitton was when travel for leisure evolved to become part of our culture.

What’s been the most challenging part about ONFAdd?

I would say creating a culture and a brand that can carry that culture far enough to become a world-view. While I’m satisfied with the system we created and all the cool things we were able to create from it in such a short period, I feel that unless we don’t continue to strengthen the link between our product development philosophy and the target market, it’ll be hard to create the big shift in society we want. As we look to become the first choice of the people pushing society forward and create a new future with them, we need to become the brand that can communicate what that’s going to look like.

Do you think that ONFAdd only creates solutions for bigger problems in society like capitalism, unaffordable homes, or a lack of permanent jobs?

Strictly speaking, it’s not that we’re not concerned with how “big” the problem is so much as we’re a lot more interested in how great the benefit to society will be if we come up with solutions.

April 10, 2019

Iceland's At10 creates bioplastics from animal byproducts

At10 Iceland bioplastics packaging

At10, an Icelandic design studio, wants to change your relationship with packaging. Instead of relying on traditional single use plastics, the company makes gelatin-based packaging which incorporates the whole animal as part of the process. This means that all facets become edible, including the packaging itself.

At10 creates Bioplastic Skin

At10’s innovation solves two core problems:

  • It utilizes all facets of the animal and reduces waste
  • It limits the usage of single-use plastics

We could definitely use a whole lot less packaging. As global warming and environmental destruction continue, more companies are turning to alternatives to limit our carbon footprint. We’ve also highlighted firms like Exo and Tiny Farms who leverage new protein sources like insects which reduces environmental impact significantly. Initiatives like Bioplastic Skin and others alike rekindle our relationship with both consumption and the animal itself. As the At10 points out, “This material should not come across as unsavory or repellent in any way, on the contrary, the hope is that people can appreciate the poetic gesture of putting an animal back into its skin and serving it that way to people.”

Though the thought of eating an animal served in an animal maybe be unappealing to you, perhaps these new systems will focus our attention back towards making more sustainable decisions.

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