Monthly Archives: January 2015


Tom Sawyer Effect

Word: Tom Sawyer Effect

Definition: The Tom Sayer effect plays into two areas of user experience design. Firstly, it is the idea that scarcity breeds desire. If something is difficult to attain, people will covet it more strongly. Secondly, desire can often breed fun and delight, at which time, work no longer feels like work and transforms into enjoyment.

Reference: If it has been a while since you cracked Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, let’s refresh. At the beginning of the book Tom is tasked with white washing a huge fence, which quite obviously, is not how Tom wanted to spend his day. Instead of painting, he works his charm to convince neighborhood boys to do the job for him, and as an added bonus, even gets the boys to pay him for the privilege. So how did he do this?

When he offers the first boy the opportunity to paint the fence, Tom says, “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Here, Tom sets up a scarce opportunity. He then makes that scarce opportunity difficult to attain by telling the boy that there is no way he will be able to do a good enough job. “I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it in the way it’s got to be done.” So not only is the job scarce, but when presented the opportunity, it is still difficult to attain. Now Tom has the boy right where he wants him.

Tom finally allows the boy to white wash the fence, but in exchange for compensation! Here, Tom demonstrates the other principle of the effect, turning work into enjoyment. If Tom were to have paid the boy, the task would have turned right back into work.

Twain writes, “[Tom] discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Thoughts: UX Designers can learn from young Tom Sawyer. Think about a website selling a product. Even if the product is not actually scarce, you can create that feeling of scarcity by limiting the time frame for purchase or even noting how many units of the item are sill in stock to evoke a fear of loss (more on loss aversion later).

We also see sites that rely heavily on user generated content. The user is typically not paid to post but excitement generated by the activity is enjoyable nonetheless. Especially, if you are specifically chosen to participate or receive a status that is difficult to attain (like ranking high up-votes on Reddit).


Contextual Inquiry

Word:  Contextual Inquiry

Definition: A research approach in which the researcher physically goes on-site to meet with participants. Once on-site, the researcher can interview and/or observe users in their normal working environments.

Thoughts: Contextual inquiry, like everything in life, has its benefits and pitfalls. Let’s start with the good! Observing a user in their “natural habitat” will provide much richer and detailed information that may be extremely hard or even impossible to learn over the phone or in a constructed setting. Think about designing hospital enterprise software, for example. If you can watch how staff work together and you can observe their workflow first hand, this will be far more beneficial than having someone dictate process to you over the phone.

In a perfect world, most of us would prefer this method above all else. However, such research techniques are first and foremost time-consuming and expensive. As we all know, research tends to be one of the first areas to get cut from budget, so many times this is just not an option. Additionally, there are security, intellectual property, and intrusiveness concerns on top of everything else.

We could all use an opportunity to get off our tails and when such an approach makes sense, jump at the chance. Keep contextual inquiry in your research arsenal!

Questions: Have you ever been in a situation when a contextual inquiry did not go as planned? How about a time you learned something during a contextual inquiry that might never have come up otherwise?


Agile Approach

Word:  Agile approach

Definition: A flexible design process which allows for more steps to happen alongside one another. This fluid approach lends itself to more rapid and flexible iteration.

Thoughts: Many teams choose an agile approach to design process over a waterfall approach because every step of the process is not treated as a separate distinct phase. Instead, teams are encouraged to work together from start to finish and are allowed the flexibility to research and iterate throughout the process. Waterfalls may be pretty and all, but they only go one direction! UX is all about improving and iterating as more information becomes available, so don’t ever let me hear you say “I’m all done.”

Questions: If we are being realistic, agile approaches do not work in all situations and environments for a multitude of reasons. Is there a good “in-between” compromise approach?


Waterfall Approach

Word:  Waterfall approach

Definition: A sequential design process that involves treating the steps of a project as separate, distinct phases, where approval of one phase is needed before the next phase can begin.

Thoughts: In this development approach the design phase does not typically begin until all requirements are approved by business stakeholders. However, a pure waterfall approach is not usually the best approach for UX work because it does not leave much wiggle room for any changes or iterations along the way. Each step is seen, for the most part, as final and completed. Think assembly-line style. The strict nature of this approach leads most designers and developers to work together in an agile approach instead (more on agile tomorrow).

Questions: What’s an example of a project that would lend itself to a waterfall approach?


waterfall chart credit


Open-Ended Questions

Word:  Open-ended questions

Definition: An open-ended question does not have a right or wrong answer. It doesn’t even have pre-determined  ideas for what the answer might be. Such questions cannot be satisfied with a simple yes or no.

Thoughts: I know this seems like a simplistic word to define but it is so important to understand the art of question-asking when conducting user interviews. An open-ended question provides room for discoverability and this is where the heart of UX problem- solving lives! The  more open ended and vague your question is, the more room you give your user to dig deeply and thoughtfully. Don’t be afraid of silence either. Users may shy away from open-ended questions by giving an insufficient answer. When this happens, let the silence permeate, and the user will likely expound on her answer to fill the awkward moment. Once the silence is filled, you will be glad your question gave room for it.

Questions: How do you utilize open-ended questions?


UX Unicorn

Word:  UX Unicorn

Definition: A UX professional who is considered a jack-of-all-trades because she has advanced knowledge in an enormous range of skills. These skills include but are not limited to, research, rapid prototyping, front-end development, user testing, graphic design, marketing, and branding.

Reference: There are two differing theories when it comes to these mythical designers. Some believe that UX unicorns do not exist. The idea that someone can be a master of all trades is preposterous and these beings only exist in the minds of hiring managers who want an all-for-one deal. Essentially, jack of all trades, master of none.

Then there is the other camp, that believe UX unicorns truly exist and that they not only walk among us, but that you can be one too! Essentially, work hard, put in the effort, and learn on the job. Only you hold yourself back from becoming a unicorn.

Question: Do you believe in UX unicorns? Are they good for our industry?


unicorn gfx credit


Gestalt Laws of Grouping

Word:  Gestalt laws of grouping

Definition: A principle taken from psychology  to understand how people naturally observe and perceive object groupings. Gestalt psychologists believe that humans are predisposed into making sense of groupings in logical ways. The principles include perceived patterns like  proximity, similarity, closure, continuity, and common fate.

Reference: Gestalt is a German word roughly meaning “shape”, “form”, “essence”, or “whole”. Gestalt thinking gives people a lot of credit and theorizes that the human mind seeks to find structure and order in the world around it.

Take a look at the image below. What shape(s) do you see? Did you say, circles and a triangle? Why did you say that when there is obviously not really a triangle or a full circle present in the image? That, ladies and gentleman, is your mind working to make sense of an unknown grouping by referencing the known and understood. For further reference, the image is utilizing the principle of “closure”.



Thoughts/Questions: Understanding how people perceive and react to groupings of objects helps designers create layouts that are easily interpreted from user to user.


MoSCoW Method

Word:  MoSCoW Method

Definition: The acronym is a method that helps understand and prioritize features of a product in order to define project needs and scope.

Thoughts: The letters in the acronym stand for: Must have (minimum viable product), Should have, Could have, and Won’t have (at least for now, but can be added in the future).

The MoSCoW method is a great tool for brainstorming while also understanding the depth and limitations of your product. “Moscow-ing” with post-its on a white board is my preferred practice of the method and I highly recommend it!

Questions: What are other great, and visual ways, of feature prioritization?


The Fold

Word:  The Fold

Definition: A theoretical line, below which content on a website or application is not visible without scrolling.

Reference: The fold is a term borrowed from print, back when it truly referred to the literal fold in the center of a newspaper page. Newspaper editors wanted to make sure that their most eye-catching and important headlines appeared “above the fold” so that the content was visible when papers were stacked for display and purchase.

The digital equivalent is content that appears when a web page loads. The content that fits the screen before scrolling is said to be “above the fold”.

Here’s the debate, because let’s face it, there is always a debate – many say that “the fold” is no longer a relevant way to view and layout content in an era when scrolling has become a norm and a reflex. Design studio, Huge Inc, did a wonderful UX research investigation on just this and it is definitely worth checking out. In their study, Huge found that nearly everyone scrolled past the fold but it was various affordances that determined how far down the page the user explored.

Thoughts/Questions: Your turn! As we talk today, in 2015, is “the fold” still a relevant way of thinking about UX design?


Guerrilla Testing

Word:  Guerilla Testing

Definition: Guerrilla testing is summed up perfectly by designer Martin Belam, who describes the technique as “the art of pouncing on lone people in cafes and public spaces, [then] quickly filming them whilst they use a website for a couple of minutes.”

Thoughts: Guerrilla research has proven to be a cheap and efficient form of usability testing. Instead of recruiting participants, researchers bring prototypes to coffee shops or public areas and use compensation (like a small gift card) to incentivize strangers into testing their products for a few minutes.

While the technique definitely has its benefits, especially for cost and time, it is not the perfect solution in all cases. In order for this method of testing to be effective, for example, the product must not target a specific or niche user base because a random sample of people will not be representative of your end users.

Questions: Laura Klein recently wrote an article entitled “Stop Accosting People in Coffee Shops” in which she details the many ways that guerrilla testing is an insufficient form of research in many cases. How often to do you practice guerrilla testing? Are you using it properly or as an easy way out?