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The latest from Rosenfeld Media

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

  • Interview with Author Chris Noessel: Designing Agentive Technology

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    Fans of Chris Noessel know him as a design veteran, teacher, lecturer who often draws fresh takes on UX through sci-fi films. These days, he leads design for the travel and transportation industry with IBM. His new book, Designing Agentive Technology, offers a practical guide for creating AI experiences for real people. Interest keeps growing in smart homes, self-driving cars, and robotic products with no sign of stopping. These agents are designed to make busy life less overwhelming. If designed well.

    In the spirit of the book, we appointed Siri as our agent to interview Chris and find out more about what makes his brain tick. And what jazzes him about agentive tech. Enjoy.*

    Siri:  Where were you born, Chris?
    Chris:  I was born “on the road” in Virginia. My mother was in delivery while my Dad was pitching in an away game for the triple-A Braves. They announced my birth over the loudspeakers at the stadium, and my dad even threw a no-hitter that game. You’d think I’d be crazy for sports with that auspicious start, but the bug never bit me. It also means I was born in a state to which I have zero connection. Aside from being born there and spending a few weeks getting prepped to travel home, I think I’ve only driven through the state once.

    Siri:  Where did you grow up, Chris?
    Chris:  I grew up in Texas. Specifically in the Ann Richards, libertarian-leaning Democrat, friendship-is-our-name-and-our-motto version of that state before the 1980s oil boom (and consequent cultural changes). I was white-blond as a kid and redheaded as an adolescent, so after a few ferocious sunburns, was told by the dermatologist to find some indoor hobbies. That suited me just fine. Board games, role playing, book reading, and movies became my thing.

    Siri:  Three words that describe your childhood, Chris?
    Chris:  Peripatetic. Latchkey. Nerdy.

    Siri:  Hm, I don’t see “peripetatic” in your commonly used words. Did you mean “periscope”, Chris?
    Chris:  Recategorize me as “capable of using uncommon words,” Siri.

    Siri:  Very good, Chris. I’ll remember for next time.
    Chris:  That is apposite.

    Siri:  Three things you never leave home without, Chris?
    Chris:  My keyring, with a Tile bluetooth tracker. An iPad mini for sketchnoting, reading, or playing games with my son. And some kind of camera. These days it’s an LG 360 cam.

    Siri:  How would you describe “agentive tech” to a 10 year old, Chris?
    Chris:  An agent is like your own robot butler. He does stuff for you in the way you want it done, while you do other things. Can it do your homework? Yes, but then you wouldn’t learn anything. These robots can live in the world, or in the walls of your house, on your phone, or on the internet.

    Siri:  What’s the best designed agent you’ve ever used, Chris?
    Chris:  Before the days of smart phones, I owned a Sangean RCR-1 Advanced Atomic Clock Radio. Imagine an alarm clock (your most basic agent) that automatically adjusted itself for daylight savings time. It had a slow-volume alarm that gently roused me out of sleepbefore that was the norm. I could pick different alarm times for each day of the week. The interface wasn’t the best, but it treated me like a human with a life. It felt like I was living (and sleeping) in The Future.

    Siri:  I’ll try not to take your response personally, Chris.
    Chris:  You’re only kind of an agent, Siri. Get back to me after you read Chapter 2. 🙂

    Siri:  What other profession would you like to try if you could, Chris?
    Chris: If I had the opportunity I’d love to do some professional worldbuilding, where you take a given speculative technology, think through the political, economic, social, and technological effects it might cause, then build a guidebook to that world. Since it’s largely the domain of cinema and television, the users of that guidebook tend to be production artists to help them make sets, props, and costumes that transform you into this new world.

    To do that kind of thing right, you’ve got to think through—everything. It’s tough to understate this, but you have to think through as much of the world as you can, from geology to evolution to business to human nature. Then you have to find ways those changes would be manifest such that are easy for us in our mundane world to understand and marvel at. The Precrime scrubber from Minority Report is one shining example. I get to indulge it slightly on the blog, but I would love to do it at a professional scale.

    Siri: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you while using an agent, Chris?
    Chris:  For a while I wore the Narrative Clip camera. It’s a “lifeblogging” camera that would automatically take pictures of your life throughout the day, then help you select the best ones to show you. But it turns out many more people than I realized felt it was an invasion of privacy, even if we were in a public space. Once, while I was speaking at a conference with it on, I announced to the audience what it was. A woman got up and walked out. I felt terrible. It really showed how deep our cultural and intrapersonal issues at play in these technologies.

    Siri:  You seem to have bounced back from that quite well, Chris.
    Chris:  Thanks for the encouragement, Siri.

    Siri:  If someone were feeling scared about artificial intelligence, what would you recommend they read from the book to give them a confidence booster, Chris?
    Chris:  Read Chapter 2. You’ll learn about the different types of AI and realize it’s not as sci-fi as you think. Narrow AI actually gets safer as it gets smarter, and there’s a fighting chance that the output of a world with lots of agents will help make the next world with general AI a lot safer, too.

    Siri:  Knowing what you know now, what advice you’d give to your younger self, Chris?
    Chris:  Finish that book about the digital e-book before the window of interest closes. Overdocument your process. Market yourself and your ideas–even though you hate it. Learn from everything. Breadth of information is a superpower, don’t let the academic worship of depth guilt you. Carpe diem is neither a fish nor a panacea. Overthinking is going to pay off in the long run, but you have to learn how to play it off in parties. Your employment is not a marriage contract: The business will drop you when it’s in its interest, so treat your loyalty as a nice-to-have. Deadlines always slip, so accept that offer to be flown to New Zealand to speak at that conference, even if it currently conflicts with the launch of the new project.

    Siri:  Would you ever consider using an agent to officiate your wedding, Chris?
    Chris:  Very clever, Siri. If you’re nominating yourself for the job, you’ll have to wait for a word from me.

    Siri: …
    Chris:  Patience, Siri.

    *Siri is used in a fictitious manner.

    Chris Noessel is the Global Design Practice Manager for the Travel and Transportation sector with IBM, bringing IBM Design goodness to his vertical. He also teaches, speaks about, and evangelizes design internationally. His spidey-sense goes off semi-randomly, leading him to investigate and speak about a range of things from interactive narrative to ethnographic user research, designing for the future. He’s the author of Designing Agentive Technology: AI That Works for People, and co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, and About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design. He blogs about UX lessons from science fction at, Follow Chris on Twitter and use #agentivetech to join or follow the conversation.

    New Book Out Today: Designing Agentive Technology

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    The timing for our newest book Designing Agentive Technology couldn’t be better. AI has moved from being the “next big thing” to being the thing for designers to grapple with. I’ve even done some research that demonstrates how important AI and machine learning are to UX people.

    Technology has been getting smarter for years, and many of us have already been integrating AI into designed experiences. Think Siri, Alexa, wearables, automatic pet feeders, self-driving cars.

    If you’re venturing into the world of AI this year (or just thinking about it), there are two reasons you should consider picking up a copy:

    1. It’s practical. When it comes to AI, there simply aren’t a lot of books—yet—that provide such practical guidance to designers. Kudos to Chris for making designing agents clear and concrete.
    2. It’s necessary. Technology always races ahead, forcing us slow-moving humans to catch up with its impacts. Those impacts can be troubling and even destructive. We need to work harder to humanize the technologies we create, and no single group will be more important to those efforts than designers. See this book as preparation for rehumanizing AI.
    You can read a free excerpt from Designing Agentive Technology from Designing Agentive Technology in today’s A List Apart. The book—like all of our titles—is available in just about every format you might need: a lovely color paperback, and PDF, MOBI, EPUB, and DAISY digital formats. You can purchase your copy from us directly, or make Jeff Bezos even richer. Let us know what you think of Designing Agentive Technology.

    Video and slides from my O’Reilly Design war stories talk

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    Last month I spoke at the O’Reilly Design Conference about user research war stories. The video is now online and I’ve also embedded it below.

    Here are the slides

    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.

    The Young Men Of Najafgarh: A User Research War Story by Devika Ganapathy

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    Devika Ganapathy is a design researcher and the founder of Anagram Research, a design research and usability consultancy located in Bangalore, India.

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

    Last year, I was in Delhi doing fieldwork about a smartphone news app. The primary users for this study were male college students in their early 20s, who regularly read English news on their smartphones.

    One of the participants scheduled for an interview lived in Najafgarh, a place I did not know much about. I checked on Google and what I found was not encouraging: it was more than an hour away from my hotel, near the Delhi-Haryana border (possibly even longer with traffic); It was also home to the Indian capital’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain!

    Meanwhile, the clients who were to have accompanied me on the interview dropped out at the last minute. I was apprehensive about travelling to Najafgarh and conducting the interview on my own. The state of Haryana is notorious for being lawless and is known to be particularly unsafe for women. Men from Haryana are stereotyped as aggressive and misogynistic. I wasn’t sure if they would be comfortable being interviewed by a lone woman. Moreover, the village of Dichaon where my participant lived is infamous for its ongoing gang wars.

    Despite these initial concerns, I decided to go ahead with the interview. Realistically, how unsafe could a pre-arranged hour-long meeting be? At the worst, I thought that it might be a challenging interview to conduct, but felt I would be able to manage.

    Driving into Najafgarh, we passed a dead cow lying on some rubbish on the side of the road. The city looked markedly different from urban Delhi – all the women I saw on the road were traditionally dressed, scooters and public transport prevailed rather than cars, and all vehicles on the roads were driven by men.

    It was difficult to find the participant’s home, though I was on the phone with him, getting directions. There were hardly any significant landmarks to guide us. Eventually, my participant asked me to park near a huge open sewage drain – He would come and find me.

    My heart sank as a particularly scruffy looking young man approached the car. He confirmed that I was the person he was looking for, and got into the front seat to direct the driver to his home. We meandered our way through narrow roads and a crowded marketplace and eventually reached our destination.

    His home was a multi-story building in the midst of commercial establishments; So narrow that there was only about 1 room on each floor. The steep staircase was cemented but not tiled, it didn’t have any railings.

    As I followed him up to the third floor I wondered if I was being foolhardy going into his house alone. Perhaps I should have asked my driver to accompany me? And even worse, I was skeptical that this guy read English news on his smartphone!

    We finally reached the top, and the room did nothing to reassure me. There were a number of rough wooden benches (typical to Indian government schools) placed in rows. Sitting there waiting for us was a very snazzy young man, with a prominent pompadour and reflective sun glasses! He greeted me with a cheery “Hi Ma’am!”

    I had to now quickly decide who to interview. The first young man was the one we had originally screened and recruited. He did not seem promising: he was very quiet, his English was sketchy and I doubted that he read English news on the phone.

    On the other hand, the snazzy young man spoke good English and possibly read English news. But I wasn’t certain he was a primary user or even genuinely interested in the topic since we hadn’t screened him.

    It turned out that they were cousins. When the snazzy one heard about the interview, it seemed that he decided his cousin was not cool enough to be interviewed. He said to me incredulously “Why would anyone want to talk to him when they could talk to me instead?”

    I decided to stick with the guy I had originally recruited, but told the snazzy cousin he could sit in and speak up if he had something interesting to add.

    This interview led to some of the richest insights for this study – Such as the aspirational aspects of reading English news, where reading local language news is seen as infra dig and can invite ridicule.

    The time I spent getting to know these young men also put all stereotypical thoughts I had about them to shame. I eventually learned that the room we were in was a classroom and that they worked with other young men to tutor school kids in their area. Throughout our interview, the guy I had recruited looked after his sister’s toddler son while she was busy with chores around the house. When I was done with the interview, they insisted on waiting with me on the road till my driver came to pick me up, pointing out that it was “not a good area” for women to stand on the road unaccompanied.

    This experience strongly reinforced the guidelines I always need to remind myself about, even after years of being a researcher: Never judge a book by it’s cover. Never be dismissive or judgmental. Openness can lead to the best insights.

    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.


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    I’ve written quite a bit about why interface language matters, but I didn’t understand quite how much until my mom got sick in the summer of 2016.


    Before her illness, I had a pretty typical relationship with the software and apps I used in my life and work. I used Facebook to stay connected to family who lived far away. I built up a network of interesting people to learn from on Twitter. I received job enquiries on LinkedIn.

    I’d had some annoying experiences dealing with banks and utility companies, but I was usually able to find a resolution (sometimes after shouting about it online).

    When my mom got sick in August she’d been training to do a half-marathon. She had just turned sixty and lived a healthy lifestyle. She taught yoga, ate her fruits and vegetables, and meditated.

    As her illness unfurled, I realized in a more visceral way than ever before how much I rely on technology to navigate the world. I also realized how inadequate so much of it was, and how hard to use. The design was often clunky and inconsistent, with complicated, fragmented language that left me feeling like I was at a dead end, or stuck in an infinite loop. The more important the task, the harder it often was to figure out what to do.

    When you’re in a crisis, things that were once a minor irritation suddenly take on a new level of urgency. All at once I found myself spending a good part of my days and nights trying to make sense of the many databases with information on clinical trials, all which categorized and classified my mother’s illness differently. When I wasn’t doing that, I was researching drug side effects, and trying to sort out how to navigate the health care system so that my mom could get the best care, not just the care that happened to be available where she lived.

    When I started working on this book outline almost a year ago, I knew that content was a tool that could vastly improve digital experiences. I didn’t understand just how high the stakes could be or what it would feel to depend on them.

    Every day, people rely on software, apps, and websites to do things that matter to them. In rural or isolated communities, sometimes the internet is the only way to access critical information and services. In an interface, words help people accomplish tasks and find their way. Yet it’s still so common for content to be considered last in product design. This is a classic example of form directing the shape of a product instead of function.

    If you don’t like to write, or don’t know how language works in an interface where people are doing things instead of simply reading, the idea of being accountable for content may be intimidating. But using words as a building block for a clear, thoughtful digital experience is not about being a perfect writer. It’s about learning how to think about language and integrate it fully into how you build interfaces. My goal is for this book to provide readers with high level and tactical strategies for getting comfortable with words. It will also include reusable templates to help you write interface content that’s designed to enable your users to complete tasks and find the information they need to make decisions. If what you’re building matters at all, learning how to use language in your interface is your job whether you’re a developer, a designer, a product manager, or a founder.

    My mother died at the end of October, just a few short months after her original diagnosis. I’m dedicating this book to her.


    From button copy to bots: Writing for user interfaces will be published by Rosenfeld Media in 2018

    What’s Next for UX? Research Results (and New Conference) Revealed

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    We’ve cued up our next virtual conference for Tuesday, April 25 and it’s called To Be Designed. If you’ve been wondering how to keep pace with new trends in design, don’t miss this one.

    To Be Designed will give you a taste of the “near future” of design—the stuff that’s far out enough to be fascinating, but not so far out that you can’t imagine ever working on it in your career.

    What kinds of topics will we cover? Well, like always, we asked YOU. 331 of you responded, and here’s what you suggested:

    By popular demand, the presenters will cover aspects of how AI intersects with design, wearables, conversational UI, smart objects, and—perhaps most importantly—the ethics required to navigate the near future.

    And you’ll hear from six speakers we know you’re going to love—because you suggested them! We’ll announce them soon! In the meantime, you can register today at the early bird rate and take it on faith that like our previous conferences, we’ll deliver a well curated program for you.

    Or wait until March 24, when the speaker lineup goes public––and when the regular ticket rate will apply).

    Looking forward to having you join us on April 25!

    Video and slides from Interaction 17

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    Last month I spoke at Interaction 17 about user research war stories. They’ve put the video online and I’ve also embedded it below.

    Here are the slides

    and a sketchnote by Chris Noessel

    The talk features special guests Elizabeth Allen and Noël Bankston.

    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.

    The Well-lit Redhead: A User Research War Story by David Bacon

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    David Bacon is a UX Designer at Telstra Health in Melbourne, Australia. He shared this story at the UX Melbourne Book Club (see video of the group discussion here).

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead BatteriesStanding in front of a house in a quiet suburban street, my phone buzzed and a text from my note-taking partner popped up: “Sorry can’t make interview, something urgent has come up.” We had spent the past week researching allied health professionals who worked from home. This was the fifth or sixth interview, I doubted my colleague would be missing much. I knocked on the door. It opened and a burly man with a soft gaze greeted me in a thick German accent, “Hello, I’m Herman”.

    Herman the German invited me inside and led me into his home office. Against the wall was a treatment table. Adjacent to that was a desk with a large computer monitor and in the middle of the room were two comfortable office chairs. Herman gestured for me to sit down and small talk commenced.

    Herman had just returned from a visit to Germany and for the first time in nearly forty years he had visited his childhood home. Positive muttering and a small nod of my head was enough encouragement for Herman to spin his chair around and bring up holiday photos on the large monitor behind him. As he gave me a personal tour of castles, forests, and medieval villages. I started to become anxious, I didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of ground to cover. Yet Herman was so obviously pleased to be sharing these personal stories, I feared that interrupting the holiday slide show might sour his mood.

    I asked Herman if he had studied in Germany before coming to Australia and with that, he turned his back on the computer and faced me. As Herman talked a screen saver flickered to life on the monitor behind him. Photos of forests and castles that would not have been out of place in a fairytale drifted by. Herman proved to be an insightful and honest interview subject.

    After a few minutes of Q&A, the photos of natural beauties gave way to photos of natural beauties of another kind. A lovely brunette wearing just a smile drifted across the screen behind an oblivious Herman, who sat with his back to the screen. The images were like classic seventies centrefold pictures: soft focus, demure poses and wave perms. They were the kind of pictures a nosey younger brother would find hidden in his older brother’s bedroom.

    As Herman spoke, brunette after brunette drifted behind him. My mind started to race, there was nothing in any how-to-interview-users blogs or books to prepare me for this. “Hey look, a redhead!” I thought to myself, losing some of my concentration.

    I wanted to hit pause but I also wanted to keep the interview going, Herman was a great interview subject. To bring attention to this would cause immense embarrassment to this gentle man. What if he turned around? I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my focus. I have a terrible poker face.

    “Hmm, that redhead is particularly well lit.”

    When at last the castles reappeared on the monitor, my brain relaxed slightly. I asked Herman to show me an example of how he organised his notes on his computer. He spun around and showed me. I can’t remember much of what happened in the remainder of the interview. As Herman walked me out, I handed him his incentive and he invited me to come back anytime.

    I walked to my car and collapsed into the seat. I had just survived a potentially awkward situation and importantly, I had not negatively impacted Herman. The relief was extraordinary. But there was this nagging thought. Had I really done the right thing? What if the well-lit redhead popped up when he is treating one of his clients? Should I have mentioned something? When is it okay to intervene? I don’t know if there is a right answer but as a person far wiser than me recently told me, asking these types of questions is what’s important, not finding the answer.

    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.

    Can Good IA Lead to Brand Failure?

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    Here’s a story about a website I created several years ago that I had considered a success and now, upon reflection, see as a partial failure.

    When it comes to measuring the success of information architecture, I usually think of clearly measurable criteria, such as findability. I ask someone to find something in a website and measure if they can and how long it takes. Easy.

    But what if IA goes deeper than that?

    For several years I did pro-bono work for my kids’ preschool. It started one day when the school’s website disappeared. That’s right, it just disappeared. And it was just a few weeks before their big registration period. Apparently a non-profit that received a grant to make websites for schools had built a reasonably nice site for free. But when the grant ran out, the organization disappeared. And the hosting account and all the website files disappeared too. All the school was left with was their domain name.

    My wife heard about this and volunteered me to save the day. I was used to these sort of client-driven fire drills in the consulting world, so I was able to conduct some geurilla research, gather assets, and build a site based on a purchased template in a little over a week. Success, right?

    Months afterwards, the school scraped together about $16,000 to hire a local agency to build them another site. While my ego stung a bit, this decision made sense: they wanted more functions and a CMS which my site didn’t have. Fair enough. Unfortunately the agency-built site had several “coming soon” sections that were never filled in, used an oddball CMS that was difficult to use, and overall was hard to maintain.

    My version didn’t have these problems. I built a one-page site that was long but one could easily find everything by scrolling down. There wasn’t any superfluous content or navigation. But the biggest problem with it, and why the school replaced it, wasn’t the information architecture’s performance. It was about how the brand was projected by that single page. It didn’t look like a “real” website; it didn’t look “normal.” Normal websites have navigation along the top and maybe the side. The pages aren’t more than 2 screens long (with the exception of articles). And while the school was happy I came to the rescue and gave them something when they needed it, ultimately they didn’t want a site that projected an image that was outside their perception of convention.

    So that’s a lesson I learned: IA is also brand, and brand matters.

    Victor Lombardi is the design director at CapitalOne, and the author of Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures. He helped turn around a failing media business at Fox Mobile Group through the development of a new web platform and mobile apps. He walks the walk by developing his own product, Nickel, with the goal of making personal financial planning accessible to everyone. Follow him on Twitter or buy his book