Stop punishing your users and learn some design fundamentals


One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how bad in-house enterprise applications look and behave: clashing color combinations, buttons that don’t respond to clicks, messy forms, elements that look like links but aren’t, inconsistent non-standard controls, no user feedback whatsoever, ugly reports, you know the drill. It’s even more incredible how the poor users find the courage and patience to put up with those monstrosities.

Commercial applications are not exempt from this, although in lesser degrees, because they’re usually tested by real users. Master of all this is SAP, whose interface and user experience appears to have the sole purpose of making us feel miserable at our jobs. Even their Business Intelligence product, whose intention should be to provide a decent way for looking at data, empowers users to create notoriously ugly and unusable charts:


This doesn’t exclude industry darlings like Apple. They also have done their own missteps.

The reason behind all this is that most applications are done solely by engineers. Hey! Don’t get me wrong, I’m an engineer myself. But I also know –somewhat– the limits of my expertise.

With the massive adoption of smartphones and the fierce competition in the different app stores, now we have very well designed applications in the hands of millions. Beauties like Paper, Partly Cloudy, Clear, Instagram or even the mundane mobile Google Maps. Applications who manage the difficult task of being useful and beautiful at the same time.

Also web apps, like twitter, asana, wunderlist, Gmail and even Facebook are becoming more and more versed in good practices of user interface design. So, as an application developer you have more pressure by the users, or at least some kind of responsibility to create pleasant and usable applications.


Nothing beats an engaged user that loves an application which solves a problem for her and it’s a dream to use at the same time. You’ll have better bug reports, better testing and better rapport to top management. If your app doesn’t get someone excited about what it looks like, then you’re doing something wrong.


Ok, I’m a software developer. How do I stop punishing my users?

Use a framework

If you’re developing a web application, user Interface frameworks abound. I particularly like the all-inclusive Dojo and Ext JS. But you can use other standard ones like jQuery UI or yui. Frameworks make your life easier because usually someone who really knows about design has pre-thought things for you. That doesn’t mean that these libraries doesn’t have ux and ui failures (I’m looking at you, Ext JS grid), but still you’re better off using them than boldly deciding to develop your own.

If you’re not keen on using a full blown javascript library for user interface, at least get some help on the static side of things. I –and everyone else– am using twitter bootstrap at the moment.


Hire a designer

In 2005 I started incorporating designers in all of our development projects. We gave them the specs, the intended audience and our general usability idea. They provided the magic. From that moment onwards, people started telling us that our applications where much easier to use, and even beautiful. They went from “Meh” to “Wow! I love this!” in weeks. The change was absolutely amazing.


Don’t try to reinvent the wheel

Get some ideas from the best practices around. Sites like UI-Patterns will give you pointers on how to design login screen, error notifications and even forms. Copy the best practices and then innovate.

If you’re designing a Windows client application, you can take ideas from Quince. And please, oh please, at least take a look at the Windows User Experience Guidelines. No, you don’t know everything. You really need to read this.


If you cant’ afford a professional usability test, do the “mom” test

Put someone in your family to use your application. You’ll see how some incredible questions and suggestions emerge from these “regular users” sessions.


Learn some design sensibility

This is the toughest part. It will be very hard to convince yourself that you don’t have any design skills. But believe me, there are reasons why you ended up as a software developer and not in design school.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book changed my way of approaching design and opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of bad design on the web. An easy to follow book that teaches us engineers the basics about typography, alignment and general good design principles.

Also, I read an entire book on forms and it was a life-changer. If you’re doing some kind of enterprise application it will surely have a lot of forms. Forms that Work will teach you a couple or a dozen things you never knew or thought about designing usable forms.

I also keep a tab on Jakob Nielsen’s usability articles. It’s a great free resource of user experience commentary and the product of years of research on good design principles.




How to create effective presentations, II

Read the first part of this article here

For thousands of years, humanity has used oral narrative as the main means to spread knowledge. Almost all of us intuitively understand the importance of telling a story. It’s something we carry in our DNA.

And if so, why most of our business presentations are so boring?

The scenario is this: we need to sell an idea, convince the audience in less than thirty minutes. Our food security depends on it. It’s a defining moment, and yet, we do it in the most torturous and overbearing way possible.

We can say that it’s because of our insecurities: fear of public-speaking, doubts over the idea or product we’re about to sell. But I propose that what really goes on here is that we don’t know that the best way to convey a message is through a story.

Corporate narrative

If there was someone that knew how to make a presentation was Steve Jobs. Each one of his interventions in the recurring releases of Apple products, are memorable. Not only does he provide information, but he also proposes a scenario, shares a vision, inspires his audience and takes them by the hand through a transformation process that leads to an obvious conclusion. In other words, he tells a story.

But we can’t all be Steve Jobs. So, in this situation, author and corporate communications expert, Carmine Gallo suggests that:

As long as you have a product, service, a company or a cause that improves someone’s life, you have a story to tell. However, you can make that story either really boring or really interesting. But I often think that there is a story. You just have to extract it.

In his book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, Carmine Gallo deconstructs several of Job’s presentations and shows you the steps to create the narrative of your product. For example:

The Headline

I’ve seen my share of Steve Job presentations and I’d never stop to think on the first element pointed out by Gallo: in each presentation, Jobs presents each product with a one-phrase headline. For example: Mackbook Air “the world’s thinnest notebook”, or the original Ipod “1000 songs in your pocket”, or the Iphone “Apple reinvents the phone”. These phrases appeared in the slides and in the press releases, and in the product literature and, naturally, the media got hooked on the magic of an idea that summarizes everything.

The headline is where we need to start. It’s the first thing we should say when making a presentation: the theme of the day, the idea that our audience will stay with at the end of the presentation. How many of us do that?

I’m not exaggerating when I say this: Presentation Secrets… changed my life forever. I realized that I’d never really known how to sell an idea or a product until I read it. Since then, all my presentations are narrative, (proving that literature is worth for something) well-rehearsed, have a headline and a theme and tell the story of a company with certain problems that we’re going to solve. I even learned to present data in a way that people can understand it right away. For me, Presentation Secrets… made the difference between giving excellent presentations that would occasionally sell, and telling memorable stories that almost always sell.

Buy it in Amazon

How to create effective presentations

my name is Bill Gates and I have something important to tell you

Aaaand off to a bad start… Most people that lead a professional life need to do presentations on a regular basis. Which is why it never seizes to amaze me that, consistently, almost all of the presentations that I see, suck.

Leaving halfway through the presentation really doesn’t solve anything. I mean, this evil energy will continue to exist even if I try to ignore it. Truth is I haven’t learned the right way to make suggestions to a presenter without having her break into tears. So, the only thing I can think of in this crusade against unproductivity is to write a post about it. I have no intention whatsoever to point out how to do a proper Power Point presentation. My goal is –as everything else here– to vent a little.

Surely, I’m not alone. Dozens of advocates of productivity porn have written about this in ways that i’ll never be able to. So let’s say that this is, at best, a summary of what I’ve read:


How to market yourself in 15 seconds

How to Market Yourself in 15 Seconds

Almost all of the “productive” things I’ve done in my life (software, books, web sites, literary events), have resulted from a referral. Someone referred me, gave out my number or email. In other words, my marketing efforts are poor to nil.

For this, I have always believed that you need to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Meaning, you need to know how to make an effective presentation and have an elevator pitch prepared for every situation.

An elevator pitch is that message that within seconds summarizes what you do and how you can help your listener. As the name implies, it’s a pitch that you can make during an elevator ride.

I have one for every compartment of my life. I usually use labels, shortcuts that may help my listener to know what it is that I do. “Software developer” is the label I most frequently use. “Writer”, “Digital editor”, are some of the others.

But after reading an article from Steve Pavlina, I realized that I’ve been wrong.

To summarize:

The key is that good marketing messages go beyond labels. As soon as someone labels you as falling into a particular career bucket, it gives them the opportunity to dismiss you. They tune out and stop listening to what you have to say. But if you present them with something that defies immediate labeling, you make people curious. You present an enigma they have to solve. You open the door to an interesting conversation.

The best example is that every time I mention what I do, I end up giving advice on Windows and antivirus. Labels get you nowhere.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to be a potential client. But what is true is that the absolute majority of the people I talk to, can refer me to a client. Provided that I awaken their interest.

In his article, Steve Pavlina recommends a product, Insider secrets to 15 Second Marketing (affiliate link) by Charlie Cook, which I cannot stop recommending. Cook takes you by the hand to create that line, that enigma that you can present to a listener in order to strike up a conversation that will lead you to a sale.

But 15 Second Marketing does not stop at the elevator pitch to find referrals, instead it also teaches you how to create a slogan that you can use to promote yourself, close a deal with a potential client, or simply make people remember who you are and what you do. The headline I used as an example in this other article.

So I’m leaving labels behind. Instead of “Software Developer”, or “Editor for a digital magazine”, I am thinking of phrases that can strike up a longer conversation and take me to other places:

  • I make business solve their fixed assets problems.
  • I empower writers to publish online.

(don’t laugh, I’m only getting started)

If your marketing efforts are as poor as mine, take a look at Insider secrets to 15-Second Marketing. Even if you hate to market yourself, you’ll understand that there are ways to do it in an informal conversation, without being noticed.

Linkedin for professionals

Just as Facebook has become our default social lubricant, LinkedIn is the global standard to connect with other professionals. Almost all of my friends who have changed jobs in the past year, have been hired for their current job via LinkedIn.

Nevertheless, they all have an embarrassing LinkedIn profile. Yes, these very same persons who know how to use computers, who have invested hundreds of hours on Facebook, who have summarized everything they are within the 160 characters that the Twitter profile allows, who have understood the social network dynamics, are advertising themselves to the workplace with a vague attempt of transcribing their résumé.

It’s only natural. LinkedIn is a social network for work contacts.  So logically, the LinkedIn profiles have the structure and appearance of a résumé sheet. And thus, the first temptation is to empty out our résumé in LinkedIn.

But the reality is that your LinkedIn profile is your best chance to advertise yourself for free. It’s a banner that you can strategically place where all the headhunters pass by. Or as I prefer to look at it: a low-maintenance cage trap.

Over three years ago, Guy Kawasaki reviewed this issue. Kay Luo, Director of Corporate Communications at LinkedIn, helped him to restyle his profile.

The most important lesson that we can extract from restyling Guy’s profile, is how he restructured his summary:


Evangelism at Apple, new product development and introduction. Love ice hockey


My personal mantra is “empower entrepreneurs.” When all is said and done, I’m a marketing guy. I established my professional reputation as a software evangelist at Apple back in the 80s. Now I lead a peripatetic (peripathetic?) existence: blogger…

This summary:

  1. Doesn’t mention college degrees.
  2. Is written in the first person.
  3. Can be read and said in less than a minute.

These three elements create a winning profile. Imagine we’ve just met, I have a problem and you think you have the solution. I ask you what you do and you suddenly change to the third person and throw in my face your college background. I couldn’t care less about your college background. The question is what you do, not the hoops you had to go through to get there. The answer to that question is the summary. If I want to read more about you, I will read the rest of your résumé. But if you present your degrees first-hand, I will probably conclude that you are a degree collector, and I will keep looking for someone who actually wants to work.


Résumé 2.0

Writing a résumé is an essential skill that every professional should have. But the world has changed since the last time the “rules” to write a résumé were established. Your LinkedIn profile needs to start with a sales phrase. A headline. The 15-second pitch that I mention here.

This summary needs to be written so that it can be read by a human being, like a story, if possible. Think of the militant informality of your Facebook profile, combine it with the seriousness level that you are comfortable with at your ideal job, and you will have an idea of how your LinkedIn profile should be.

After the summary, you go can to the facts, talk about your experience and education. And don’t forget the photo.

It doesn’t matter if it sounds ridiculous the first time, you can go on adjusting it little by little. I guarantee that at the end you will have a résumé worth reading and without a doubt, one that stands out from the bunch.

How’s your LinkedIn profile? What are you waiting for? Come on! Stop wasting time on Facebook and do something for your future. It’ll only take 30 minutes of your life!