The Digital Life

UX Axioms


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The Digital Life

Dirk Knemeyer & Jonathan Follett

Description: Adventures in design and technology

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UX Axioms

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Jon: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Five Questions. Today, Erik and I are going to be talking about the UX Axioms, which is been gaining popularity and a lot of notice in the interaction design world. Erik is the author and speaks about them quite frequently. Erik, it’s a pleasure to have you here today to talk about UX Axioms.

Erik: Yeah, Jon, it’s great to be here.

Jon: Let’s start with … We were talking about this as the larger story behind the UX Axioms. How do these fit into … I don’t know whether we call it the practice of user experience or the broader field, but … how do you see these fitting in, and how do you see the field evolving?

Erik: That’s a good question. I think I just want to take a step back and talk a little bit about where they came from. Then I think that will partially answer the question. I started developing these UX Axioms as I started running a studio and mentoring junior designers. It was a way for me to try to get out this tacit knowledge that I had developed over the years of practicing design and doing software design for years and years. Stuff that I couldn’t necessarily explain off the top of my head, but as we would encounter a problem or encounter a situation, tried to take a step back and explain what was going on, and why I was doing the things I was doing, and why I work the way I work.

When I first did this, I developed a list of 150 or so things and boiled that down into what we have today, which is 26 axioms currently. I think that I used the term “UX Axioms” not because I think that there’s a field of UX design … that’s actually something I feel very conflicted about … but it’s something that is in popular nomenclature. People understand or people at least recognize the word. I think “understand” is probably a stretch, because I think that’s part of the problem.

I think when we talk to clients, a lot of people say, “I want UX,” or, “I need UX,” and they mean so many different things, whether someone actually means they need UI design. Someone else means they need research. Someone else means they just need some wireframes done or something. It’s almost become this really meaningless word, “user experience.” I don’t think it’s actually a field in and of itself. I think we practice lots of other fields. We practice front-end development. We practice UI design. We practice interaction design or architecture, whatever it is. I use the term because I think it’s popular and it’s a way to get the foot in the door and start a conversation about something. I think that that’s interesting. Trying to think where I was going with that.

Jon: I could jump in there and just say that I agree with that sentiment generally, although I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the popularity of the terminology, which indicates, for me, at least a desirement on the side of business … or however you want to represent the popularity of the term … there’s this desirement for design influence and design input. The term du jour right now is UX. When you’re in the C-level executives and they say, “We want UX,” that’s a powerful motivator, and budgets come with it and opportunities come with it. Even though we’re, perhaps, conflicted about the practice itself or what makes up that practice, I think there’s a lot of benefits to this upcoming popularity that we’re all experiencing this right now.

Erik: I think if you take the definition that I use in the latest version of the presentation over on the website, I really define “user experience” more as an orientation, a way of thinking. Really, that way of thinking is being critical about the impact that the stuff that we make has on the world. I think that there’s this feedback loop between the stuff that we make and how we shape the world, and then how the world that we’ve made, in turn, shapes us. When I think about user experience, I think about, it’s a process or an orientation of thinking critically about the stuff that we’re making and putting into the world and the effect that it’s having and the impact it’s having on people, as that world then reshapes how we think and the cultures that we’re making.

For me, that’s what UX is. It’s not a job description, and it’s not something that you do for work. It’s really something that we all should be doing as we move through the world. Put another way, it’s mindful reflection. It’s just moving through the world in a mindful way.

Jon: Surprisingly, that’s an orientation that is not particularly shared by companies or by people who might have a different focus from the design side. It’s a powerful perspective. I think it’s easy for us to overlook how powerful it is, because if you’re looking at things only from a financial perspective or only from an engineering perspective, then user experience and the axioms that you’ve articulated actually seem almost like a foreign language or unknown revelations. I do think they’re critical for input.

Erik: It’s interesting. It’s interesting to see some of the feedback that I’ve been getting, mostly, I think, probably through Twitter and some of the other social media outlets, as people consume it and then reflect back on it. It’s interesting to see what’s resonating with people. To me, it was a process of formalizing or making visible a lot of my tacit knowledge. It’s stuff that I take for granted, so it’s interesting to hear when people read them and say, “Oh, wow, I never really thought of that particular one.”

I typically expect most people … practicing designers that play in this space … that nothing here should be really revolutionary. I don’t think that I’m pushing revolutionary ideas in these axioms. It’s more of a reflection and a synthesis and trying to articulate, in a simple, straightforward way, and trying to give clarify to a lot of the things that we all do day in and day out.

Jon: Tell me a little bit more about the reaction you’ve been getting, because I know you’ve been on the road speaking at various conferences about this. Then I think Allen Cooper might have tweeted out that these were great axioms, and I know you got a lot of views as a result of that. How has the reaction been, and what’s been the most exciting part of that?

Erik: It’s typically been positive. I think people saying, “This is a great overview. It’s really clearly articulated.” Different people resonate with different ones. I have had some negative critique. Some people saying, “This is like a 10,000-foot view.” That was said in a negative way, but my reflection was, “Well, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.” It’s not a detailed tactical methodology for how to apply these things. I think of it as more of a meditation on the work that we do.

In general, the reaction’s been pretty positive. I think after the talks I’ve been giving on both the UX Axiom stuff and I’ve been giving some talks on designing for emerging technology … which, I think, pulls from of these things. It’s a subset plus some other things from the axioms … people coming and saying it was very inspirational, which is great. If I can inspire people to look forward and do things in a more critical way, then I feel that all the effort that I’ve put into these have been worthwhiled, if it can, again, inspire people to think critically about the craft that they’re performing in their profession.

Jon: If I was a user experience newbie, could you suggest some ways that I might be able to use these axioms in my practice? Or, barring that, ways to think about them so I could adopt them into my thinking process?

Erik: I think that’s a really interesting question. I think it’s something that I struggle with a little bit, because again, I didn’t create these to be a tactical handbook for people to apply. I think of them very much as a more reflective meditation. That said, I think you could take these … and I’ve had a couple people reply to me by Twitter of how they’re using them, saying, “I’m going to commit all of these to memory,” or, “I’m going to take one of these each day and reflect on it,” and try to apply a particular axiom to whatever work they have in front of them that day, as a way to practice and perform the critical reflection of that particular axiom.

You can’t take it all on all at once. If you can take one of the axioms and have it, instead of the back of your mind, take it out of that tacit knowledge and put it in the forefront of your mind, and every time you’re taking an action, every time you’re doing something, asking yourself the question of whatever the reflection of the axiom is. One of them is, “Make non-arbitrary design decisions.” For me, that’s critical. The design decisions we make, whether they’re large and strategic or they’re small around a particular micro-interaction, they shouldn’t just be because it’s trendy, or it fits the space, or “I saw someone else do it,” or “it worked on my last project.” Those are, in my mind, arbitrary rationale for the design decision. If you take that axiom of “make non-arbitrary design decisions” and you ask yourself every time you’re making a design decision in that day, reflecting on it, “Is this arbitrary, or do I have rationale for this?” You can do that.

Another one, “Set and manage expectations.” Every time you’re communicating throughout the day, whether it’s in the email or it’s something that’s manifest in the interface, you can ask yourself, “Am I setting an expectation for the recipient of this message or the user of this interface? Am I appropriately managing their expectations?” That’s going to ask additional questions. “Do I know what their expectations are? How am I creating an interface that’s taking that into account?”

I think that that’s probably the best way to take some of these and apply them, is to, if they’re unfamiliar to you, make them mindful, bring them to the forefront of your mind. I don’t have actual card deck yet. You could write it out yourself or print out the presentation, and have it there in front of you as a visible reminder to just think about that particular aspect while you’re going through your work throughout the day.

Jon: I think another possibility might also be to use it post a project in your postmortem. Depending on the success of the project that you just completed, you can go back and say, “Did we follow these, and if not, is there something that we could have done better?” I see a number of these applying that way.

Erik: I think that’s a great way that you could use these, almost like a heuristic checklist or review checklist to say, “Did we do this? Did we not? If not, how could it have changed, and what could we have done better?”

Jon: Right. That sets you up for, hopefully, success on your next project, as you think about, “What did we do right or wrong on this one?” I could see myself using them that way. It’s surprising. I do think that you’ve managed to break down some of these primary principles in such a way that a newcomer to user experience could easily see the principle and then perhaps apply it.

I often think about the practice of design in relationship to my experiences as a professional musician, once upon a time. I always had the hardest time when piano teachers, the ones that weren’t very good, would just say, “Here’s how you do it,” and then just rip out this solo that was just amazing, and then they’d say, “That’s how it’s done,” versus, breaking down all the principles and then giving you the toolset to do it yourself. The piano teachers I had that were good were able to do that. Once I had those principles in mind, I was able to really build up my own skill set.

You have axiom number one, “It’s all about people. It’s not about the object.” That’s an interesting perspective for somebody who hasn’t thought about that before. Get rid of that thought in your mind that you’re creating this object. What you’re creating is something for a person to use to achieve what they want. That’s a totally different orientation.

Erik: Yeah, and I think that that one is typically … confronts or confounds a lot of junior designers. It depends on what design school they’re coming out of or where they’re coming from. A lot of people think of design very superficially, and it’s around this fetishizing of the object culture that we make stuff. We make pretty, shiny stuff. We make beautiful things. I think that we as designers really need to let that go and stop fetishizing those things that we make, and think about how are we, again, impacting people’s lives, what’s the benefit that we’re giving to people, not what’s the thing we’re giving to people. People buy the benefit. People buy the impact that it has on their lives and not necessarily the object.

I think there’s something else there. When we think about letting go of the object, it means that we as designers need to come to the table and come to the design exercise and practice from a place of humility and a place of empathy. It’s not about design as ego, but it’s about design as service. I think when you come to design from that orientation, the process that you go through is going to be very different.

Jon: I would agree with that, Erik. I like the way you put that. If you had to pick the most important axioms from this set of 26, are there a couple that you could highlight for me that would get me going in the right direction?

Erik: I think the one that you just mentioned, “It’s all about the people. It’s not about the object.” That discussion we just had is probably one of the important ones. I think another one that I find myself having constant conversations with people about is this notion of problem-finding …

Jon: Yeah, I like that one.

Erik: Instead of problem-solving. I think that that one’s really interesting, and that idea of the act of design is really about framing and discovering what’s the right thing that we should be solving. Then yes, of course, we have to execute on it, and we have to ask those how. Asking that question of, “What does it mean to do good work?”, and not just, “How do I do good work?”, I think is really crucial to doing good design work.

For me, coming from the field of cultural anthropology before moving into design and technology, this idea of stories and storytelling, and stories are how we understand the world and shape the world. They get baked into what design is, I think is, again, crucial. You see this reflection again or this duality of, a lot of the axioms, when you look at them, they’re both about how do we understand the world around us, and then also how they can apply from that understanding perspective, and then also then apply to the things that we make. Stories are how we understand the world, but we also need to bake stories and use stories in shaping the stuff that we make that’s going back out into the world. There’s these two sides, a consumption and a creation side, to a lot of the axioms. I think the story one is really important.

There’s a lot of other ones. I think the idea part and parcel with stories … When people look at a lot of user experience work around research, if that’s their focus and that’s how they understand UX, I think a lot of people stop at the stories. For me … I forget which number it is, but … this idea of creating models and using frameworks is, again, crucial to my design practice.

It’s not enough to understand the stories and write a narrative. It’s about how do we synthesize this information into an abstraction, into a concept. Model then relates all of these different key elements into one visualization, into one way of understanding, so that we can then communicate that understanding to other people in a simple, straightforward way that can tell many layered stories at one time. The frameworks that we use … and they’re varied … also give us a language to start to describe something. Again, they become those models, or those frameworks become a touchstone for us to have a conversation around something.

It’s never going to be the complete story, or the complete answer, or the complete way to view something. You’re always going to have to adjust a framework for your specific instance. I think that idea of moving beyond just narratives and using frameworks and using modeling as a way to express information I think is, again, probably one of the key axioms for me.

Jon: Right. I’ve got the list in front of me. For the listeners for the show, it’s We were just talking about number one, “It’s all about people. It’s not about the object,” number three, “Stories are how we understand and shape the world,” number five, “Problem-finding before problem-solving,” and number ten, “Create models, not just narratives. Use frameworks.” Those are Erik’s recommendations for a “get started” pack.

Erik: The one I would add to that, I think … when I look at them, they’re all so important, but … I think another one I see often not done is number seven, which is to explore the big picture and the details at once. I see this gone awry on so many projects, where people will try to set a strategy upfront and try to define the big picture without exploring some of the details. Then the converse of that. Once they’re in the design work, exploring the details, and refining the details, and making detailed design decisions, and not reflecting back out on the big picture. I feel like design process is a constant dialogue between this big picture and the detail. You have to be zooming back and forth between those two to create consistency and a systematic approach to the design work that we do. I see that one, oftentimes, gets abused or not done correctly, but it is so impactful when it’s done right.

Jon: I like that one, as well. It’s tough to do but worth doing, clearly. Final question, Erik. What’s next for the axioms? You had mentioned the possibility of a card deck. How do you envision these? Are you planning on adding more? Are you looking for input from people? What’s next?

Erik: Great question. I think, definitely, if people have input, I’d love to hear it. I’d love to hear, “Hey, what about this one as an axiom, as an option?” If there’s something that people feel like is missing, I’d really like to engage in that conversation around how could we extend these a little bit. My conception was I wanted to make a card deck out of them. I think they lend themselves well to that. That way, again, you could take a card and reflect on it and meditate on it. It’s really easy to do that.

Through initial reactions when I made this public, I had people saying, “This would be a great poster. I’d love to see a poster of this with all the different axioms on it.” I think that’s something that I’ve been exploring and another option for coming out of this. Another thing that I’ve thought about it is those little scout books, so like a 25-page little booklet, a 3 by 5 or a 4 by 6 little booklet. Might be a great way to encapsulate all of these different things, where you could get the axiom, you get some information, but it’s all there together and bound in a simple way.

A couple different options. I’m not sure which will be first and which will be next. Probably at least one of those things to physically manifest these and get them outside of just the website. Which, I will say, was a really interesting experience and experiment, because I’ve given this presentation several times. That’s how I’ve driven the evolution of the axioms, was presenting them at different conferences and refining them in between. When I presented it this January, instead of just posting the slides on SlideShare or Speaker Deck, I said, “I think I’ll just make a simple website so that it’s easier to point people just to a URL than it is to some slides on SlideShare.” That, I think, was a hugely successful experiment. I don’t think that I would have seen the traffic and the publicity of it. I don’t think as many people would have seen them had they just been contained in a SlideShare, a deck on SlideShare.

I learned a lot about how you can communicate this stuff through that experiment. I think that if people are interested and they’re giving a presentation, and it’s a topic that they’re interested in, I think it’s really easy just to throw up a really simple, straightforward website that has that information that’s easier to consume. People can look at it on their mobile phone. They don’t have to go and download the slides. I would highly recommend, if there’s something that you’re working through and you want to get more feedback from more people, put it out there in a way that’s easier for people to consume, instead of embedding all that knowledge in a deck on SlideShare.

Jon: That’s terrific advice, I think. It definitely makes it easier when you can just give someone the, as opposed to some hideous SlideShare URL. Excellent point. Erik, I just want to thank you for talking about the UX Axioms with me today. We’ll have other guests on in the future, but it was fun to do just an episode with the two of us this time, exploring this endeavor that you’ve embarked on, so thank you.

Erik: Yeah, thanks, Jon. Thanks for having me on. It was great to talk about it.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to … that’s just one L in “thedigitalife” … and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter. That’s @jonfollett, J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Erik?

Erik: You can follow me on Twitter, @eadahl. That’s E-A-D-A-H-L. I’d love to chat with you and hear what you have to say about the axioms.

Jon: That’s it for Episode 60 of The Digital Life. For Erik, I’m Jon. We’ll see you next time.

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