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Conflict Is the Key to Great User Experience with Steve Fisher


This week on the show we sit down with the UX Fest workshopper, Steve Fisher. We discuss how creating conflict on a project can lead to a much better experience for the end users.

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Show Notes


Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Dirt. I am Tim Wright and today I am here with Mark Grambau.

Mark: Good morning Tim.

Tim: Good morning Mark. And Steve Hickey.

Steve Hickey: Good morning Tim.

Tim: Good morning Steve. And special guest all the way form Vancouver, Steve Fisher. Founder and experience architect at The Republic of Quality, welcome to the show.

Steve Fisher: Great, thanks for having me on the show today.

Tim: Thanks for coming on we are really excited. Mark…UX Fest?

Mark: Yeah, so we’ve been plugging the hell out of UX Fest, if you haven’t heard about it yet, we’ve been talking about it on every show on. We are so excited. And one of the big things this year is we’ve added, in addition to the October 1st day of UX Fest with all sorts of speakers and panels, we also the day before, on September 30th, have this great half day workshop with Steve Fisher, our guest today. And what we haven’t been mentioning is, Steve in addition to that workshop on responsive content modelling, is also giving a talk at UX Fest on a whole different topic, I believe it is called “Conflict Is The Key To Great User Experience”. And we want to speak with you Steve together with a preview of what you are going to be talking about at UX Fest, and give us a little insight into what you mean about that. Are you inciting all of us to just pick up boxing gloves and just beat each other to a pulp until a good website comes out?

Tim: That’s how I took it.

Mark: That’s really… yeah.

Steve F: I bet in some ways a lot of people are doing that and they just don’t know. That’s the problem.

Mark: That’s fair. So yeah, tell us a little bit about what you are thinking here.

Steve F: Okay. I spend a lot of my time on projects, meeting with the whole team. So by team I mean the stake holders, the audience, and the people like us, the vendors that are actually providing some of the services to projects. And often you will notice in those projects that there is just a lot of things that aren’t being said, and we constantly mine for those. And a lot of that means that their is unresolved conflicts that comes throughout projects. Without actually bring out that conflict and making it happen, or allowing it to happen and hopefully, we just can never really get to the actual why of the project. Why are we doing this next thing, why are we doing that? And so we miss the point often and that causes projects to really feel from being the best that they possibly could have been.

Mark: This is something…I am so glad you are doing your talk on this, this is something that Steve and I have often talked about about. Both of us come from art-school backgrounds, Steve studied design, I studied Administration, and so much in Art School is critique. It is throwing your work up on the wall and trying to separate yourself from thinking of the critic you are getting as personal attacks, and really taking it as objective discussion of the work. And there is an adjustment that I see a lot of art students go through, my self included when you first get there, and it can be arresting, it can be alarming when people are tearing down obsessively what you’ve build and you take it very very personally.

Tim: Yeah it is, it is. You put a lot of time and effort into it and then immediately someone starts criticizing, it is really difficult to not take personally at first. We’ve kind of dealt with that with iteration. Getting feed back early and often.

Mark: And what Steve and I have often talked about, we found is that Art School is this great boot-camp for getting over those kinds of issues and learning to speak frankly and objectively, and not personally. I worry that a lot of the rest of the folks who are in UX Design and the development background and business background, this is not a part of their education in a way, that we don’t have the language to address conflict in a meaningful way and I think often as you said it goes, it becomes sub-text, it goes unspoken, everyone is trying to keep the relationship positive and more often than not we end up with these unspoken things that you end up with a quagmire.

Steve F: Yeah, we are definitely a society of likes where we prefer to like things, there is actually a great workshop and talk, even a few blog posts and stuff that have been floating around for a couple of years where it’s Arin Nazari and Adam Connor have talked about design critic. And I love that they can distil it down for people that maybe never really heard of it or gone to art school, anything like that, so about an hour where they can really get the frame work they can put around it. I think it’s as much about the frame work of a critic as it is the language used within it. But what I am actually talking about is a little different than that. I actually on projects almost insight arguments. Not exactly, but maybe I could tell you a little story, do we have time for a story?

Tim: We have days.

Mark: I brought my coco and a blanket, I am ready for story time.

Tim: Our Dropbox has terabytes of space to store the file and don’t even worry.

Steve F: Well this is actually one of the stories I will tell in my talk, so this a bit of a preview of it. But there is a company here in Vancouver that makes Lithium Iron batteries for high-breed ships, now I am talking ships, I am talking about the big container ships that send things across oceans or sometimes great lakes, but usually oceans. And then they also help those ship build lighter hulls, so that reduces the amount of fuel that those ships need to use. Now the fuel that most of those ship use is so low grade that when it is not super heated, it is as hard as concrete, you can walk across the fuel. You know it is not good for the environment. What was shocking to me as I did a bit of research into this, was that those ships produce 80% of the worlds pollution.

Tim: Wow.

Mark: Wow.

Steve F: Yeah, 85%. So if you took all the cars in the entire world and all their pollution it equals to the 10 largest ships, just the 10 largest ships produces just as much pollution as all the cars in the entire world. So this is rounding up and down just a little.

Tim: I don’t feel bad about littering anymore, I really don’t.

Steve F: So this company in Vancouver is trying to reduce those emissions by like 5%-10%, which will be more than the entire, like if everyone just stopped driving, this would make a bigger change than that. So that sounds great, but when I was talking to them after doing some this research and asked, “Well, why is there so much shipping?” And he stopped and said people are trying to do, get food to their countries, there is some really good reasons. But their is another example that happens quit often where as in Vancouver here we’ve got some cheaper wood that gets milled I’d say…not milled, gets cut down but it cant be sold here in Canada or in the United Stated, so it get shipped across to Asia where it gets worked on and milled because their is much cheaper prices. And then it gets shipped back, because it is cheaper to do that. But you can imagine the waste. So if I were to be involved in this project and I was really trying to see mindful conflict, what I would come out and say is well why don’t we stop shipping? What can we do to make that change rather than just…like the batteries and the lighter hulls, that’s great. But it is really 85% of the pollution, what we found the big problem, lets see what we can do to fix that even more. So thats not really a project I am working on, but it is a example of we could produce these better batteries, we could have these better features, we could this thing where we re-write our content, but if we don’t understand why, and we don’t keep digging to find those things, and we don’t actually bring out those conversations that everyone was avoiding, that no one would talk about during that research project. But once it was out, there was something we can do about it. Maybe we wont in that one particular case because people aren’t going to stop shipping any time soon.

Tim: Right.

Steve F: But the difference it would make to our world.

Steve H: I mean it is really about able to dig into how business operates and then see if you can effectively attack one of it pillars.

Mark: Yeah, it is asking a very hard question, not being afraid to really shake up the status quo, which is what we often say is our job as designers, the job is to look deeply at things that people haven’t looked at before.

Steve H: I mean this actually directly relates to a user experience problem that Mark and I faced with a previous employer which is that we had system in place at this company that was extremely profitable but was an extremely treble experience for users. Basically they were auto opted into stuff and the company had like two or three years of on going discussion about getting rid of that as user experience problem, because it made customers furious. But it also generated a lot of income and like actually just being willing to say can we go without that money, was really really controversial to a lot of people.

Tim: It kind of reminds me of solving things by piling more technology on top of them other than…instead of just re-thinking the problem, like stop don’t ship as much. There was like a big disease outbreak like in cows a few years ago, I don’t remember exactly the details, but it was because they were eating corn, and their solution was to keep injecting cows with anti-biotic and everything to make them stop being sick instead of just feeding the grass. It was just this big thing and nobody wanted to just feed them grass, everyone wanted to just pile more technology on it to solve the problem.

Mark: So Steve is this something that you like to think about attacking across from internal teams of client, or like in your perspective you are coming in as the outside adviser to say, “Hey guys, maybe look at stopping shipping.” Or is it something that, are you looking at the context of within internals teams too as we as contractors maybe given the problem it is something that we can police ourselves too to make sure that we are giving the best answer we can by thoroughly examining internally?

Steve F: Yeah, it’s for any team, you know whether it happens to be just withing you own company, so your internal team their, or a broader team were…because I rarely consider myself the expert that has come in, I consider myself as the expert that has come and joined your team. And so it is us as a team trying to find a solution to these things and articulating as best as we possible can the why statements behind everything. The truth is we cant always solve all the things, like you are talking about one example where it is three years of discussing back and forth,can we go with out this money, can we stop auto opting people in. You know there was no quick solution for that, at least not at the start…

Steve H: It ended properly we’ll say.

Steve F: It is worth fighting through this things to try to find those solutions, even if we cant achieve them right away. And I think it is just something that junior designs, it is really important for them to know that we can’t actually solve everything immediately. But knowing that the solution is and then spending the time to work towards it, is a big success. And we shouldn’t get discouraged by the times we were we cant get their quickly, or maybe can’t always get their completely. I do believe that user experience work is supposed to be a little bit altruistic. Which is probably why all of these…you know when we something like that, when someone is being forced to auto-opt in and it is horrible and it is probably making everyone talk to this company again, it breaks our hearts a little bit.

Tim: A lot of it is about empathy.

Mark: Yeah, we are responsible for the work that we create for the design we put out their and because it is not just making…honestly the first thing that came into my mind was a waffle, I don’t know, I do not have a good example here. But we are making something that someone is using day in day out, there is emotional investment, as he said it is about empathy.

Tim: Like a waffle.

Mark: Like a waffle.

Tim: Exactly like a waffle.

Mark: And it is our jobs to make that a good experience and what does fall flat, that’s on your concision. Whether it was just, it was manipulative or it was opt-out, or if it is actually something that is stopping someone from achieving a goal they are trying to achieve, we are responsible for that.

Tim: Yeah it was…we had this event here, I don’t know when this is going to air, at least on Monday, but Matt Marquis came and gave us a talk about the picture element. And he made some really good point about universal design on the web, and creating a web for everyone that everyone that everyone can access, and that’s…that they empathy for everyone whether they are just a normal user, or they have browser, they have javascript or they have images off, or they blind or they are deaf, all these cases to consider.

Mark: Yeah, it is all about empathy, it is recognizing your own biases, because you think that you are…we all maybe think we are the typical user, I don’t know. And we are not, Matt made a great point that the most widely used smartphone in the world is a brand that no one has heard of in the United States, it is a brand that has, it is a phone that has the equivalent specs of about an original iPhone, iPhone 3G, it is running on an edge network, it is running Android 2.3, it has got a 320×480 screen, it is really what we would think as old hardware.

Tim: It is a garbage phone.

Mark: And we are all designing here for the latest and greatest, but if we are designing experience that way we are cutting out literary the largest population of smart phone users in the world.

Tim: And these are all what I would consider points of conflict that can make the experience better. You say what about those people who go without Java Script, something like that. Like what about that person on that crappy phone.

Steve F: Yeah, and people will often, like you are pointing out real against those things too. Where they will say well we don’t know those people, or those things don’t matter because it is just a small percentage, or whatever it happen to be in this case, it is not a small percentage. But I actually really love Aaron Gustafson approach. Like we when two key books for responsive design came out, one was his adaptive design and then the other was Chris Ethan’s responsive design. I thought they were a great paring and that Ethan’s was more the technical;here is how this happens. And while Aron’s was also quite technical in one sense, his addressed empathy, and he actually talks about these a lot in different conferences. But just the idea that we can deliver a great core experience and then we can use progressive enhancement to make that experience a little bit better other places when that’s available. But it is not a sense of we have to make sure it works for these shitty phones. Can I say shitty on your show?

Tim: You can say whatever you want on this show.

Steve F: Because I did.

Mark: We have no beeping and capabilities, we are just beyond that.

Steve F: Its not damming it down saying no, it is great for everyone and it is a little bit different, or it is a little bit enhanced for certain devices, certain regions that have a better connection, whatever happens to be… And so yeah, it is about empathy. And that is a very difficult thing to do, because we are not, none of us, I do not think there is a single user experience designer out their that is the typical internet user. And I’m often shocked when I’m working on projects and doing testing, and like one of the things that surprises me the most is I would say 50% of the time when I do testing, the people, the audiences they are using are doing the test don’t know that the logo is a link to home. In my head the polite Canadian is saying oh that’s okay, and in my head I am going, “Are you stupid?” You don’t know this? Every site does this.

Tim: They are rude in their head.

Mark: That’s right, that’s the secret. All Canadians are just as rude as the rest of us, they are just…it’s all inside.

Steve F: Yeah, that’s not really true…no, yeah. It is just that as soon as any American comes into view it is kid of like Toy Story, like oh hello, good to see you. Then the Americans are like, oh those guys again.

Tim: But yeah, it has always blown my mind how hard you have to fight for progressive enhancement. Especially in the past few years with all the JavaScript frameworks that are popping up. And there was a great Q&A session yesterday of whenever there is a talk that says anything about dealing with people that don’t have Java script, there is always that one person in the crowed, “Oh everybody has JavaScript.” And then as a speaker you just want to…yeah.

Mark: Mat composed himself very well, they did great debate over that.

Tim: Yeah, but I don’t know if Steve you deal with this stuff trying to defend progressive enhancement, but that is one of the main conflict points that I bring up on projects.

Steve F: Yeah, we deal with it a lot, often whenever I am trying to convince say client team or a client decision maker, I try to find out how it could impact their bottom line. So sure, it can be more expensive of an approach to really think all these things through, because you are actually doing your due diligence. But what happens if lets say in America someone sues you for not having it built it in a certain way? Whether that’s because of 508 or just that they couldn’t use it, or it was something that didn’t have to be met. But also what happens if more and more users in the future happen to go against a certain thing? Don’t you want your site future proof for that? So all these things lead there way back to what is your bottom line? How are you going to create an experience that is going to be best for your customers, your audience, the clients, whatever happens to be for them? And often the money stuff is what makes people turn around and see it differently, and opens it up to a conversation beyond money.

Tim: Yeah, it kills me to have to bring up the 508 lawsuits and everything, but sometimes that is what it takes to get through.

Mark: And to the other point, if you are talking about progressive enhancement, and talking about building a site that is scalable for all kinds of devices and browsers, the other great statistics are drop off statistics and bounce rate statistics and say if you are building a site that isn’t really optimized for these browsers, you are throwing all sorts of unnecessary code and images and everything, bounce rate can just sky rocket. And that’s another business case you can make. Given the litigious nature of the United States, I totally understand that they should be there 508 based law suits. But have there been, do we know of nay law suits that have not been about 508, just about like “I’m confused” lawsuits? Like I find your website difficult to use lawsuit?

– I don’t know

Mark: I am just waiting for that person. And not over like, just it wasn’t really nicely designed. I couldn’t find the button.

Steve F: Well their are probably aren’t any but now they will be because you have given everyone the idea.

Mark: You are welcome America, and Americas legal system. So Steve, one last thing I know I want to ask is, do you have any sort of frameworks or excises that you like to help try to identify buyers? Almost like ice breakers, things you can with people to try and be able to identify and recognize the biases they wouldn’t normally volunteer on their own.

Steve F: Yes, there is a few things that I do on every single project. So I will share the universal things, because each project is a little different, so you have to get to know who you are talking with. And the big thing is it comes down to being a being a great facilitator, [[00:20:35]] a great listener,being willing to ask questions, so I think all Canadians are really great at that. It is interesting, so it is a little different depending on what region of Canada or the United States that you are in, but generally I find Americans will offer an answer and Canadians will ask the question. But when looking at this, so all Dan Brown has this great listening check list, so often just lead of with that, just saying hey here is how we can listen to each other. And it seems really fundamental, it is things like active listening, really and having some guide lines around this. But you will be shocked how many people go “Wow I had never though of that.” And so just setting those boundaries around it, are great. Beyond that, ask three questions every single time when we are talking about whatever project it is. And you have probably asked these similar things, what are your pain points? What are the things that are going well, and would you wish could happen? And I always start with a negative first, what are you pain points. Because people love to tell us what is going wrong, they just love it. It is cathodic for them to just get it out there, its like we’d have gone for therapy together. But then by the time they get to what do you wish, they are actually talking about the things that are going wrong, still too, and saying I wish we could do this but we cant because of this. And we start to get these conversation really going. I always use sketching in every session to…there has to be a flip chart or a white board so people can draw put what they are talking about, and I encourage them to all be sketching during the entire time because this allows us to actually communicate a bit better. When we can draw a concept or think about it that way, it cause our brain to think about it differently. But beyond all that we really need to have a frame work established that allows us to know what our boundaries are. So things like project vision, or user experience vision should be established. We should have design principles that perhaps we fought through to get to but when we are starting to talk about things make decisions say okay when this conflict comes out how do we resolve it? Because if we cant get down to our whys, we are just sharing our opinions, so if we cant say our why statement we are just sharing our opinions and our opinions wont move us forward, they will move us lateral and backwards only. But our why statements, we say well this is why we need to do this or why I want to do this. Allow us to start to crawl forward, but if we have things like design principles and a vision to work towards and goals we can look to those and say, “Well you want to do this but our project vision doesn’t support this.” Or “This is actually a counter to do two of our design principles. We said we are going to put users first and we said that things had to be fast.” Implementing this concept or feature or this thing will cause it to be slower or it is going to piss people off. So those things allow us to have the conversation, the key though is to just be observing and listening and wait for the moments we say, “Hmm I think this person isn’t saying something. Lets talk about that.” It really is like we are doing design therapy. So their is no real trick to though, it is actually just listening and talking.

Steve H: That’s great, I mean it goes back to a theory I have had for a while that when you start a project, getting to know stake holders and getting to know the business is really is more about therapy than anything else, it is not like a survey, it is about getting people to seat down and get comfortable and open up with you so they’ll say things to you about their project that they might feel like they can’t say internally to their own team.

Mark: Oh yeah, you are making a safe zone. We use the analogy all the time that working with a client it is relationship, we use relationship metaphoric language all the time and therapy language all the time. I saw a really great quote today that Tina Roth Hindenburg shared from Frank Chimero on identifying bias and empathy: “This is the only note-to-self. Other people are real. That is all there is to learn, it takes forever but you can start now.” And it is the notion that once you recognize that the universe is not floating around your head but other people are really they have real concerns, they have real biases, you open yourself up in a really meaningful way. And as you said it is when you put out these principles about active listening some people really are surprised. It is amazing I think we all can catch ourselves a times, even if we think we are the most empathic open minded person, we can catch ourselves realizing, oh yeah, I could be listening better. I could be thinking about other better, I could be designing something of better experience for all.

Tim: I feel deflated now.

Mark: Do you feel inferior?

Tim: I feel deflated after that quote, thanks Tina.

Steve F: That was very American empathetic right there. So my empathy is better than yours.

Mark: All empathy is equal but some empathy is more equal than others.

Tim: Steve you are also giving a workshop at UX Fest on Responsive Content Modeling, can you just say a little preview about that so we can tease it?

Steve F: Sure. Well some of the things that we’ve talked about are already involved in that. Like setting that framework so that we have these boundaries to work from. But one of the biggest problems with any website is its content, and your website is a black hole without its content. And we haven’t really done well as an industry in our first 20 years of web design of addressing content and building sites for that. In fact we often build sites that are just fancy buckets that we try to shove content into, and then maybe it over flaws or only fills up a quoter of it.

Mark: I am going to change my title to fancy bucket designer, that’s awesome.

Steve F: That’s good, yeah. So what we do is we take a look at your content, and your content system and we set priorities for everything, because it is easy for you just building a website that is going to go to one particular screen. But we are not doing that ever, so ever again I don’t think. So when we are delivering content and our website, perhaps any device that is out their that can access the internet, we need to think about your content priorities and how they relate to each other so that people can have congruent experience across all devices. It is a myth that people are rushed when they are using a small scree or a mobile device, and we need to be delivering any interaction that is transactional or informational should be available across all devices, and so that is difficult. And so what this workshop is about is establishing a way and a system to create the designs that will support that content.

Tim: Yeah, there is a great statistic I like to throw around about the whole mobile on the go thing. Something like 80% of people use their phones when they are sitting on the toilet, and 20% of people lie about it.

Mark: Yeah, I am just constantly struck by data, and even also just real life examples of totally breaking down some of these stereo types. One of my favorite examples, my great aunt who is now 98 years old, up until about a year ago used an iPad and a Mac for a good decade, decade and a half. She had her screen pumped on to like 800×600, even having like this huge resolution display. But she was using a Mac and doing her online shopping and she needed that to be working for her. My mother in law who is in a her early 60s, [[00:28:32]] her iPhone is her only computer, and she is using that on the go, at home, all the time, she is doing everything on it. She ids planing lesson plans a teacher. There are examples of breaking out this stereo types of it is young San-Franciscans on the go is a mobile user, and it is just partly false.

Steve F: Yeah, it actually is 85% of mobile usage is on the home, and it is not hard to see why because we are too lazy to get up a go to our computers. There are over 30% of Americans though that are their primary, and in some cases their only internet connect device is a smart phone, so it makes sense. Anyway, so the work shop is about addressing that, and making sure that you have a plan for how to create you content, and your designs are based in off of your contents system. So at the end of the workshop we have these working sketches, working prototypes if we get far enough of how our responsive content system would work. [[00:29:36]]

Mark: That’s great.

Tim: Mark my question to you is how can people sign up for Steve’s workshop and when is it?

Mark: Well that’s a great question Tim. As said at the beginning of the show and like every show in for three months, Steve’s workshop is here at Fresh Till Soils offices in Water Town of September 30th UX Fest, where you can also hear Steve on October 1st, you can get information about all of that, and buy your tickets at and for our esteemed listeners, you can save 105 on your ticket price with a coupon code, THE DIRT. Is that right Tim?

Tim: THEDIRT, all caps.

Mark: That’s right. Is it caps, is it case sensitive?

Tim: I don’t know, they will find out.

Mark: So we really hope to see you here and tickets really are dwindling, they are diapering. There are very few seats left so get on it.

Tim: Yeah, I have been giving some away. Steve we want to thank you so much for coming on the show and talking to us. How can people get a hold of you if they want to harass you? [[00:30:44]]

Steve F: Usually the best way is through Twitter, I am @hallofisher on Twitter, I am actually taking a social media break right now, so if I don’t respond right away it is not because I am rude, I am Canadian I am not rude.

Tim: Well we know that is not true in your head.

Steve F: Yeah, that’s right. And also on, is my website and all my contact information is there, you can give me a call if you like even.

Tim: We also have one other event coming up a Fresh Tills Soil, we’ll it is not here but to announce. The next Refresh Boston event will be at the Seaport hotel downtown or in the sea port on October 27th, it is a free event, Jason Pamentel, former guest of the show will be on there talking about responsive typography, very excited about that. You can find more information at, you can find us on Twitter @thedirtyshow and send you long winded comments to Please review us on iTunes wherever you are listening to us now on. And once again Steve Fisher thank you so much for joining us.

Steve F: It is my pleasure, thanks guys.

Tim: That is all we have for today, thank you for listening, and we will try and do better next time.

Author Tim Wright

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