Correcting the reality distortion field: Learning the right lessons from Steve Jobs

There have been many stories about Steve Jobs lately. Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography Steve Jobs came out this week and is now the #1 bestselling book. Isaacson has hit the talk show circuit hard—I must have heard essentially the same interview at least four times this week.
Through Isaacson, here is what we are learning about Steve Jobs:

  • Steve Jobs was an arrogant jerk. A harsh but concise summary. He often treated his family and coworkers quite badly. He was quite full of himself.
  • Steve Jobs was cruel and humiliating. He didn’t hesitate to humiliate employees. Many Apple employees lived in fear of being fired—and rightly so.
  • Steve Jobs valued his own personal opinion above everything else. Jobs famously said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” As a result, Apple has downplayed user research. Apparently Jobs wasn’t all that interested in the opinions of Apple employees either as he routinely ignored their input.
  • Steve Jobs was a demanding perfectionist. He wanted everything to be just right, and wouldn’t accept anything else.
  • Steve Jobs was a great innovator. At least, that’s what everybody says. But unless you define “innovation” as “perfecting ideas invented by others,” I believe Apple isn’t especially innovative.

Isaacson (like everybody else) is in a state of wonderment as to how this all managed to work out so well. All this worked out because, against the odds, Jobs was usually right.

I’ve seen other managers attempt to do similar things, and the results are consistently disastrous. For example, endlessly obsessing over colors might put you on everybody’s “A list,” but probably not the A list you have in mind. Being an arrogant, cruel, humiliating, self-absorbed, perfectionist jerk isn’t normally the road to success. It would a tragedy if this turned out to be Steve Jobs management legacy. Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because of these characteristics, but in spite of them. Not just anybody could have pulled this off—Steve Jobs himself was just barely able to be Steve Jobs. I fear that we are in for a generation of Steve Jobs wannabes screwing up every project they touch.

“You aren’t Steve Jobs, so don’t act like him.”

Exposing the reality distortion field

Let’s consider one example. When Isaacson describes Jobs’ famous reality distortion field, he explains how the Macintosh team said a project would take three months to complete. Jobs insisted that they do it in only two weeks, and lo and behold, they amazingly got the project done in two weeks.

This is pure BS. The reality distortion field here is that Steve Jobs deluded himself into thinking that is what actually happened. In the real world, when a team of talented software developers say a project will take three months to complete, it will probably take a bit more at best. People rarely overestimate. If they worked double time, perhaps they could get a week and half’s worth of work done in a week’s time. It is simply not possible for a team to deliver three months of real work in a couple weeks.

My experience is that if a project manager insists on doing a project in less time than the shortest estimate, the project will end up taking more time than the longest estimate. I can’t prove this, but Steve McConnell comes awfully close in Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules.

In the section Overly Optimistic Scheduling, McConnell tells the story of Microsoft Word for Windows 1.0. Based on metrics, McConnell estimates the optimal schedule to be 460 days. The shortest estimate the team gave was 395 days. Bill Gates insisted that it be done in 365 days. How many days did it actually take? Try 1887—5 times longer than planned! Why? Because cutting all the corners required to pretend that the product could be done in a year meant that the resulting code was poor quality crap that all had to be redone (or “stabilized”). This is how ignoring your team’s estimates usually works out, and I doubt that Jobs’ results were any different.

The Right Lessons of Steve Jobs

I think that Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant visionary and project leader. But the brilliant part isn’t the story being told by Isaacson—those are mostly character flaws. Here’s my summary of the brilliant part:

  • Focus on experiences over features and technologies. The user experience is the only thing that matters. To users, the user experience is the product. Therefore, the user experience rightfully drives the design and features and technology are enablers—not the other way around.
  • Make it delightful. Well-designed products make an emotional connection. They are a joy to see and a joy to use. They are designed to make users fall in love with them.
  • Do less better. Better to do a few things well. Have a few, well targeted products instead of many, poorly positioned ones. Better to have a few great features than many not-so-great ones. Nail those and move on instead of constantly fixing problems in hastily designed and implemented features. Jobs once said “Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.”
  • Keep it simple. The simplest design that does the job well is better than a complex design that can potentially do everything. Well-designed simplicity is powerful—don’t let anybody sell you that tired “simple means simplistic” nonsense.
  • Set a high bar. Good enough is not good enough—aim for insanely great. Set high expectations for your products and your team. Have pride in the quality of your work.
  • Get it right the first time. Don’t start work on an innovative product until the technology is ready. Ship a product when it’s ready, not when it’s due. Don’t take three times to get it right.

These are the right lessons—the part of Steve Jobs’ life that you should aspire to emulate.

If you do only one thing: Remember that Steve Jobs’ vision, focus, and high standards are what made Apple great, not his personal character flaws.

A hypothetical Steve Jobs

Like the rest of the technology world, I am mourning the loss of Steve Jobs two weeks ago. Steve Jobs had an extraordinary understanding of the human side of technology, and courageously believed that technology should not only be useful but enjoyable—that it should make an emotional connection. He revolutionized the computer, music, and cell phone industries by doing a few things extremely well, keeping things simple and delightful, and waiting to release products until the technology was ready instead of merely possible. He led an extraordinary life and founded an extraordinary company.

To get an idea of how extraordinary, I’ve been asking myself some hypothetical questions. What if the circumstances where different? What if the real Steve Jobs:

  1. Had graduated from college?
  2. Had not been fired from Apple?
  3. Had not started Next?
  4. Had not bought Pixar?

Would Apple’s results be the same? Better? Worse?

To raise this thought experiment a notch, suppose Steve Jobs’ doppelganger (a different person with similar skills, philosophy, personality, and temperament—let’s call him SJ2) were to land a job in the following circumstances:

  1. A brash, young SJ2 at Jobs’ first Apple (pre 1985)
  2. A brash, young SJ2 at Scully’s Apple (1985 – 1997)
  3. A brash, young SJ2 at Jobs’ second Apple (post 1997)
  4. A brash, young SJ2 at Gates’ Microsoft (pre 2000)
  5. A brash, young SJ2 at Ballmer’s Microsoft (post 2000)
  6. An older, experienced SJ2 at Ballmer’s Microsoft (post 2000)

How would this person’s career go?

Of course, this is crazy hypothetical so there are no right or wrong answers. Please share your thoughts in the comments and compare your answers to mine.

UI is Communication book

Breaking news: My contract for my book UI is Communication was just approved! More later but if you are interested in being involved, please let me know.


Windows 8 Explorer redesign: My analysis

Yesterday I stumbled across Improvements in Windows Explorer on the Building Windows 8 blog. I found this post interesting because while it is superficially impressive, I see some fundamental UX design mistakes that I suspect will result in the redesign falling short of expectations. Students of my UX Design Essentials course and readers of my blog should recognize them immediately.

For a fun UX design challenge, read the UX Design Essentials Curriculum and The Politics of Ribbons, then read their post and see how many problems you find.

OK, what did you find? Let’s proceed…

What I like

First, for the good part. Here’s what I like with the Windows Explorer redesign:

  • Data driven decisions. The use of data instead of personal opinion deserves praise. However, there are several traps with using data to make design decisions, and I think the Windows 8 team walked right into them. More below…
  • Improved Details pane. The redesign looks much better than the current design and makes more effective use of screen space.
  • Copy path. This is a frequently needed Windows Explorer command that deserves its promotion to a top-level command.
  • More visible advanced search UI. The current Windows Explorer advanced search features are almost invisible and difficult to use.

I’ll add to this list as I discover more things, but this is it so far.

When you are a ribbon, every problem is an undiscoverable command

Guess what? Windows Explorer is getting a ribbon. What a surprise! Didn’t see that one coming. To be a bit snarky, I think Improvements in Windows Explorer could be accurately retitled How we used data to justify a ribbon for a simple utility that probably doesn’t need one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the ribbon and think it is a fantastic UI innovation. But from The Politics of Ribbons:

The ribbon has one significant strike against it: it is the heaviest commanding solution there is. A good UX design principle is to use the simplest, lightest weight solution that does the job well, so applying this principle suggests that—given its weight—a ribbon should be among last commanding choices, not the first.

In UX Design Essentials, I identify the classic UX design process mistakes. Here’s #3:

Falling in love with one (usually first) solution.

It’s a good bet that the ribbon was not only the first choice, but the only serious choice considered. Using a ribbon was likely a politically driven decision justified with data. Look at the data…we just had to use a ribbon!

A good design process is about making choices on behalf of target users to create a product that satisfies their goals. But you can’t make a good choice if you have only one option to choose from. Focusing on a single solution short-circuits the design process.

To convince me that this is a great design, I want to see an exploration of simpler, lighter weight alternatives and a demonstration that the ribbon approach is in fact better. And if you practice effective prototyping, you can’t argue that would take too much time and effort.

Utilities: we’re just not that into you

Windows Explorer is a utility, meaning that it is typically used to support tasks initiated in other programs. It’s what Alan Cooper describes as a transient application, not a sovereign one.

This is a significant detail because it affects how people use the program and how you should make design decisions. Here are some implications:

  • User goals are elsewhere. Window Explorer is used to manage files, but nobody really has the goal of managing files. Users’ goals lie elsewhere—they want to browse the web; view their photos; play their music; view, create, and share documents, and keep their information secure. Users prefer to do these tasks in their current context, so, for example, you open Office documents using the Open or Recent commands within the app. Note that the iPad and iPhone don’t even expose their file systems, so there’s no need to manage files on that platform.
  • Usage is infrequent and brief. As a utility, users don’t spend that much time with Windows Explorer and that time is usually to perform a task step (initiated elsewhere) as quickly as possible.
  • Most users have low motivation. Users aren’t motivated to spend much time in Windows Explorer. Isn’t not a destination worthy of investment. If advanced users are motivated to learn more about its features, it’s in order to spend even less time with it or to automate tasks.

Bottom line is that users want utilities to perform tasks as quickly and simply as possible, then move their attention elsewhere. A complex utility, with lots of stuff you really don’t need, undermines this goal.

Doesn’t this feel UI way too complex for what should be a simple utility? Do you really want to wade through all this stuff to find a command? Do all these commands need to be visible on the screen all the time? Don’t you think there must be a simpler alternative that does the job better?

With over 200 commands, Windows Explorer looks like it was designed by a feature hoarder. If your top 10 of 200+ commands are 82% of usage, time to start cutting back.

BTW: Here’s a useful ribbon guideline that I think is appropriate:

  • Don’t use the scalability of ribbons to justify adding unnecessary complexity. Continue to exercise restraint—don’t add commands to a ribbon just because you can. Keep the overall command experience simple.

Well put!

The highlighter test

The highlighter test is a simple, quick way to evaluate how effectively a UI is using screen space. Gather your top tasks, perform those tasks using your design, then highlight the UI elements that are potentially useful for those tasks. If almost everything is highlighted, you’ve done a great job. If not, you’ve got some work to do.

Here’s my highlighter test for the Windows Explorer ribbon:

Note that I highlighted only 3 of 19 visible ribbon commands. Crikey!  The reason is that I use shortcut keys, context menus, or direct manipulation (usually drag and drop) for all the other commands. Yes, the data shows that Paste, Properties, and Copy are top commands, but that data also shows that 85% of usage comes from context menus and shortcut keys. I don’t expect the ribbon to change that much.

One benefit of traditional menu bars that deserves some appreciation is that you can fill them with every command you’ve got and nobody is going to care much. Not true with a ribbon.

Power user value propositions and personas

The key to user-centered design is to identify your target users, understand them well, and make good decisions on their behalf. Improvements in Windows Explorer mentions power users quite often, but doesn’t mention typical users specifically. Looks like the Windows 8 team is targeting power users. Nothing wrong with that if it’s appropriate.

A value proposition states the reason your target users will want to buy and use your product—especially when compared to the alternatives. Their post suggests that power users are using after-market add-ons like TeraCopy, QTTabBar, DMEXBar, StExBar (which BTW the ribbon-based Windows Explorer won’t support anymore). Power users also use command line and Windows Power Shell.

The “when compared to the alternatives” part of the value proposition is a killer here. While their post makes a strong case that the redesigned Windows Explorer has many features power users will like, they didn’t make the case that power users are going to care. Will a Windows Power Shell user switch to Windows Explorer because of the ribbon and a few new commands? I doubt it. And if not, are power users really the right target?

Good value proposition work would have revealed this all-important problem.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s start to create a persona for power users with a few key characteristics:

  • Wants to work as efficiently as possible.
  • Motivated to learn and memorize program features and commands to work efficiently.
  • Greatly prefers keyboard over mouse.

BTW: I wouldn’t expect “Desire to respect Explorer’s heritage” to make this list. Your design priorities should clearly align with your target user.

Now assume that you are a power user and want to copy the file you just selected. Which approach are you more likely to take:

  1. Type Ctrl+C.
  2. Move mouse to ribbon, click the Home tab, click the Copy command, move mouse back down to where you were working.

For this power user persona, I just don’t see #2 happening here. I know that the Windows team no longer uses personas. Perhaps they should.

What I would do instead, part 1: Scenario-based design

At this point, you might be thinking: OK then, what would you do instead? Glad you asked!

Note how the Windows 8 team is  focused on data, features, and feature discoverability. I mentioned in the introduction that using data is a much better way to make decisions than personal opinion. But there are several traps using data, the most important being that using data is often used as a substitute for thinking.

Data tells you “how much.” Knowing “how much” is important, but knowing “why” is far more important still. Raw data doesn’t tell you the users’ goals or what they are trying to do. It only tells you what they did and how often.

For example, the Windows data shows that Properties is the second most frequently used command. Why? Why do suppose users want properties so often? Is looking at properties a common task or goal? When you see a file, do you immediately think “I really want to see its properties”? No! The Properties command is a means to an end, but never an end it itself. The user is trying to perform some other task and checking Properties appears to be required in order to do it.

While a good design (that mindlessly follows data) would make the Properties command more prominent, a great design (that leads with data) would strive to eliminate the need for the command in the first place!

How do you do that? With scenarios! A scenario describes a specific target user trying to achieve a specific goal or task in a specific environment. Their post mentions Windows Explorer supports many different scenarios like viewing photos, playing videos, and playing music—then completely ignores that fact when justifying design decisions.

Remember: Windows Explorer is a utility that helps users manage files—a goal that most users rarely have!

A better approach is to design for the goals that users really do have. Design the best possible experience for viewing photos! The best experience for playing videos…for playing music…for protecting users data…for finding stuff. Supporting these scenarios should drive the design decisions, not raw data. So, for example, if you view a folder of photos, the top-level commands should be focused on the top photo tasks—and nothing else! And if done properly, excise tasks like displaying Properties go away because they are no longer needed.

Unlike task-based design, scenario-based design considers the user’s context—a great way to eliminate unnecessary complexity. In any given context, the user isn’t likely to need 200+ commands, but more like 5.

If you watch the video at the end of their post, Alex Simons show some tasks that look like scenarios. But those feel fake to me. Why? Remember that Windows Explorer is a utility and scenarios are tasks done in a specific environment. Real Windows Explorer scenarios should rarely start or end in program itself.  These aren’t “end-to-end” scenarios but rather what I call “technology vignettes”—scenarios fragments artificially limited to the component you are working on, but not tasks that users really do. Designs that hold up well with “technology vignettes” routinely fall down when evaluated with real scenarios—especially for utilities. They aren’t “end to end” but “middle to middle.”

What I would do instead, part 2: Nail the basics!

I really want things to work properly. I’ve found several basic features in Windows Explorer that just aren’t quite right yet, but in the interest of time I’ll limit myself to four:

  • Better performance and responsiveness. I don’t like waiting, especially unnecessarily. I don’t want to wait for Windows Explorer to load; to display thumbnails, previews, properties; to enable commands or drop context menus; to copy, delete, or rename files, etc.  Given a choice between a responsive app and just about any collection of new features you could name, I’ll chose the responsive app.
  • Better search. Google has set the bar for search user experience and Windows search falls well short. Too slow, too hard to use. I would happily trade a ribbon for better search any day.
  • Better presentation and previews. Windows Explorer currently has 8 view modes (!), many of which aren’t that useful. It also has a knack for choosing the wrong one by default so I constantly have to change it. And is it really that hard to choose appropriate column widths in Details view so important data isn’t cropped unnecessarily? Any why are file previews so often broken and don’t work in zip files?
  • Smarter error handling. Regarding scenarios, bulk file handing scenarios are important. Bulk rename (example: photo files) doesn’t work well.  Bulk file copies often fail because of some easily ignorable problem. Windows Explorer should just report the problem and move on instead of dropping dead in its tracks. (Sometimes these problems display a dialog with a Skip button, but I’ve discovered that Skip usually Cancels instead.)

These details weren’t mentioned in their post. Hopefully the Windows 8 team is addressing them, but I fear that focusing on the ribbon will distract from nailing the basics. I’ve seen that happen before.

If you do only one thing… When evaluating a design, take a step back and ask yourself what is driving your decisions. Technology? Features? Politics? Schedules, deadlines, and budgets? Data? While practical realities, these shouldn’t be the driver. Instead your design should be driven by providing value, satisfying user goals and tasks, delighting users by doing a few things exceptionally well. If you are using data, don’t let it become a substitute for thinking. Take the time to understand what the data is really telling you.


Want to learn more? Be sure to check out the UX Design Edge training courses. Every technique I’ve mentioned here is presented in UX Design Essentials.

Disagree? Leave a comment!

Effective Prototyping

I just completed my second annual New York road trip where I presented Effective Prototyping to the Tech Valley .Net Users Group in Albany on August 8th and the Central New York .Net Developer Group in Syracuse on August 10th. These presentations had a great turnout, with excellent audience participation and supportive feedback. I’ve very pleased by how they went. Many thanks to Andy Beaulieu and Chris Miller for making this happen.

Here is the blurb:

Software prototyping is an important UX design skill that many people “just do” but effective prototyping requires crucial knowledge and practices that aren’t obvious. As a result, many prototyping efforts aren’t productive and fail to achieve their goals.

In this talk, Everett will explain prototyping and its goals, compare prototyping to sketching, and explore the different types of prototyping. He will then give the eight rules for effective prototyping and show why those rules are so important.

Everett will review several commonly available prototyping tools (including SketchFlow), give nine criteria for evaluating prototyping tools, and evaluate the tools based on the criteria. He will conclude by showing some examples effective and ineffective prototyping in practice.

If you or your team is prototyping now or considering prototyping in the future, this talk is for you!

And here’s the deck: Effective Prototyping (1.2 MB).

I’m interested in presenting Effective Prototyping to other groups, especially to those within driving distance (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Montreal, Ottawa) as well as places that I often travel to (Chicago, San Diego/So Cal, Washington DC, Seattle, Florida). If you’re interested, please contact me.

For more information, please contact

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