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J Cornelius (Video) — Prototypes, Process & Play 2015

J Cornelius, President at Nine Labs in Atlanta, presented at the 2015 Prototypes, Process & Play conference and shares his thoughts on how to help us become better designers when we worry less about the visual outcomes.

We hope you enjoy J’s presentation, “Redesign Our Design Thinking” and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!

J Cornelius

President, Nine Labs

J has been making websites and software for the web since 1998, and has been credited with creating several software features web designers and developers take for granted today. He’s passionate about efficient, usable, aesthetically pleasing design. He is the President of Nine Labs, an experience and strategy consultancy where he works with companies far and wide to improve their products and services. He’s also the President of the Atlanta Web Design Group, and founder of the Web Afternoon conference series.

For more, keep up with J at or on Twitter as @jc.

Redesign Our Design Thinking

Design is beautiful and beautiful things are well-designed. While this is true, it isn’t the whole truth—aesthetics definitely are NOT everything. Sometimes the best design isn’t what you think, and we need to leave our design aesthetic ego at the door and focus on positive outcomes for the user.

This talk will challenge your assumptions about what great design is, and discuss ideas about how we can be better designers by focusing on process, function, and outcomes instead of visuals.

Presentation Transcript


J Cornelius:

Thanks for having me Russ. Thank you for your attention. When I started thinking about design thinking, I realized that we have a problem. The problem is that too many people: Designers, UXers, all the different disciplines are focused about the wrong things. People are focused on outputs instead of outcomes. People are focused on assets over impact. And we’re thinking too much about technology, not enough about humans.

I was chatting with Aaron Gustafson about this, and he said something pretty interesting. He said we’ve been making things, tools, systems, processes, to make our jobs easier. But has it helped the user? Has it helped the everyman? We’re really doing too much naval gazing and not enough thinking about the people we’re designing for.

Where we see typography and rounded corners, and all of that cool stuff, people just see a pave that they want to use to get something done. We see shapes and layouts and modules, and people just see a shopping cart. They don’t care.

So put another way, perhaps in our daily work we can’t see the forest through the trees. I think we suffer from design myopia. We’ve got tunnel vision. We’re not looking broadly enough. We’re not thinking broadly enough and we’re not thinking openly enough. So it’s time to redesign the way that we think about design. We focus too much on the aesthetics. You like Lebowski?

Little tip, I put a Lebowski reference in every talk.

Our approach should be on the pleasurable and the frictionless of the user’s goals. We sometimes let our design get in the way. We have to leave our design aesthetic egos at the door and focus on positive outcomes for the user.

This talk is not about a solution to that problem. You won’t hear about the holy grail of design thinking. I’m not that smart. There’s been a lot of other very practical tips come from this stage. I’m here hopefully to give you some questions to use as you go about your daily work. Because like you, I’m wrestling with what it means to be a designer in the modern world. So hopefully by sharing some of these thoughts, I hope to spark a certain kind of curiosity to get you thinking in a little bit different way about how you approach your daily work. And I hope that by the end of the talk you’ll have a few ideas on how to refocus your design thinking and lead to higher quality work and greater satisfaction in doing it.

We talked a lot about this left brain, right brain split. And we had some good conversations here about the different ways that people think, and the different approaches people take, and how all of those approaches are essential to having a good design process and a good outcome.

People typically think about visuals first because that’s such a dominant force in the world around us. That’s how we perceive so many things. So visuals are important, but there’s so much more. We need this analytical side of our brain to figure out the complexities of design, to understand requirements and constraints and apply logic and to try to make sense of the chaos and the unknown.

A lot of designers will tell you that design is emotional. It’s ethereal. It’s in your head. And that’s creativity, which is also very important. But true design is an analytical exercise. It’s left‑brain stuff dressed in right‑brain clothing.

There are several different ways to learn. We can learn by hearing. We can learn by reading. We can learn by doing it ourselves. But most of the important ways that we can learn is by failing. Because now you eliminated one way that it won’t work, which gets you that much closer to the solution.

So Denise talked about an experimentation mindset. And we need to keep focused on trying new things, even when they’re scary. A lot of times we’re too afraid to experiment so we rely on patterns. Patterns are safe. But sometimes we can become slaves to these dominant patterns. We think in systems. We’re very systematic in the way that we approach things. We think with patterns and libraries and style guides and all of these things to help us. We create these artifacts that make it easier to talk about the things that we’re building. They’re all useful tools. There are all these things like bootstrap. And all these other UI and UX pattern libraries that we rely very heavily upon. But sometimes we have to take a step back and we have to think about the source of these things.

We know about the five Why’s, which is a very powerful tool. So using the five Why’s, let’s think about how some of these patterns exist. And I’ll do this with a little audience participation, if you’re willing. I’ll gesture to you and you’ll ask “why,” deal?

It’s up there because of the story of the solid rocket boosters. The solid rocket boosters, they’re made in a factory in Utah and they had to be transported to the launch pad in Florida. The only way to get something that size to Florida is by train. The train goes through some mountain tunnels. As the mountain tunnels are a certain size to accommodate the trains. So the solid rocket boosters were confined to the same size of a train car so it could fit through those tunnels. So now the tunnels are this certain size —



J Cornelius:

Because of the width of the train tracks. And the train tracks are set at 4 feet 8.5 inches wide, which seems like an arbitrary measurement. If you were going to design something, you would think you would use a round figure. You might asking yourself why are the train tracks 4 feet, 8.5 inches wide. That’s because the train system and the rail system in America was built by British settlers when they came over.



J Cornelius:

This is gettin’ good.

So in England, that was the specification.



J Cornelius:

Because the tram systems in England ran on the same rails that were set up by the early trolly cars, and that was the width of the rails that they used?



J Cornelius:

Because originally the horses and buggies carved those rail ways.

And the buggy width was set at 4 feet 8.5 inches wide.



J Cornelius:

Because those roads were created by the Roman Empire to move their legions around the world.




J Cornelius:

Because that was the width of two horses’ ass.


J Cornelius:

So when we think about the size of the solid rocket boosters for the space technology being dictate bid the width of two horses’ ass, we can start to see that sometimes dominant patterns can lead us in ways that we don’t intend. And sometimes those patterns that existed for such a long time that we just use them and we don’t question their source and we don’t question their utility and whether or not it really is the right solution.

Since we’re talking about carriages and such, I want to bring – which is a bias whereby people are more likely to use something or to subscribe to a way of thinking or a philosophy or a tool when they see other people doing it. People hop on the band wagon. This is the rate of uptake or beliefs, ideas, or fads or trends, increases the more they have been adopted by others.

We see this happen in the social media world we have today. And we see how rapidly things can go viral. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right solution. Another bias to think about is we are predisposed to underestimate the amount of time or effort it will take to do something we have already done, something that we are familiar with.

So when we use a pattern or we use a system or we use a tool that we’ve used a lot, we tend to think that it’s easier. We tend to think that it’s faster. But it’s actually not. And by contrast we overestimate the amount of time or effort that it takes to do something or to go down a path that we are unfamiliar with.

So if you think about you estimating the amount of time it takes you to get from your office to your home or from your home to a friend’s house, if you’ve done that a lot, you might think it takes five minutes, but it actually takes seven or eight or nine.

So we have to be careful in automatically using a system or a pattern or something that we’re familiar with and thinking that it’s going to be faster or easier, because it’s not necessarily true. And we have to try to eliminate the fear of trying something new simply because you think it’s going to be harder. There is a learning curve. There is an experience curve. But we have to ask, are we following these design trends ask using these comfortable tools because it’s comfortable for us? Or is this actually the best solution for this project in this place, in this time?

We know that our minds work better when they’re open. So do we actually need to use the latest tools? That new shiny thing that just came out on Github last week that everybody is raving about, do we really need to use that for this project? Or is that us just wanting to play around? We have to ask what if the unsexy way actually is the best way?

We also have to ask ourselves if we’re solving the right problem. At our shop we say that we have to do the right things and we have to do things right. If we’re not doing the right things, it doesn’t matter how well we do them. So we have to make sure that we’re solving the right problem first.

During World War II, the Army and Air Force were thinking about how to make their planes stronger and more resilient to the damage that they were sustaining. So they were looking at planes that returned from battle and they were looking at the patterns of where these planes were damaged and they were saying let’s reinforce these parts. Where all these holes are, that’s not strong enough. Let’s reinforce these parts. And then someone had a moment of brilliance and started looking at the correlation between all the planes that didn’t return. And they found that if they reinforced the places that were strong of the planes that did return, those are the spots that when a plane got shot, it was more likely to go down.

So if you reinforce those spots, you’re making the plane stronger and more resilient to battle.

So they had to find this common ground, which meant that they had to look a little bit deeper than what was on the surface.

This is a survivorship bias.

It’s the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that survived a process and inadvertently overlooking those who did not because of their lack of visibility. So we have to think about when we’re observing things what are we seeing – yes, that’s important – but also what are we not seeing? What failed? What didn’t make it through? And maybe that’s something that we need to investigate more. And we use this five whys, this root‑cause analysis to get to that problem.

There’s a story about the Washington Monument. It was deteriorating much more rapidly than anyone had predicted. So they asked why is the monument deteriorating so fast? And well it’s because of these harsh chemicals that we have to use. Why do we need these harsh chemicals, because that’s the only way we can get the bird poop off of the monument. Well, why is there so much bird poop on the monument in the first place? Well, because all of these flocks of birds come because they like the spiders that are around. They like to eat those spiders. Why do we have these spiders? Well the spiders are here because there’s these huge swarms of insects that come around the monument every night right around dusk. Why do we have all of these insects? Well, they’re attracted to the lights that we’re using to light the monument. So what they did was change the lights and had them come on later at night so it didn’t attract the insects, which didn’t attract the birds, which didn’t cause the poop, so now you don’t need the chemicals.

A good friend of mine Marti Ringland said when you’re building products don’t build it for your client. Build it for your client’s client, your client’s customer, because that’s who you really have to make happy. You have to go a couple levels deep to understand what’s really important. We have to ask ourselves are we asking the right questions? Are we solving the right problem? Are we looking deep enough? Are we clouded by the things that we see and ignoring the things that we don’t which might be just as important?

We have to get out of the building. No idea. No product, no service survives it’s first contact with a real customer. That’s where we find our real insights. Hallway testing is fine. We need that. But we have to go out on the state and be more guerrilla and find people who are actually going to use the product. Get to their pain points.

We have to go lean and identify who is this customer? What is their problem? What do we know about them? And how do we know it? How do we find out this information? What are the assumptions that we can make about them? How do we test those assumptions? What have we learned? What should we learn next? What’s the next test and how do we measure that? As people who have been doing this for a long time, we have to remember that we have this level of knowledge that the general public does not have and maybe never will.

In a previous talk, I addressed this idea of digital fluency by attributing our knowledge of the systems and tools and the things that we’re building for this digital world that we live in to language fluency. So if you go to a country where you don’t speak the language, you’re going to have a hard time. And we invite people into our world and ask them questions in our language, they have a hard time, too. And just because somebody has access to the internet doesn’t mean they really understand how it works, what happened, what the interaction patterns are, what these dominant things are. We have to make sure we ask the right questions.

And we have to remember that we are cursed by our own knowledge. Fundamentally we have a difficult time putting ourselves in the perspective of somebody who doesn’t have that knowledge. Lesser informed people are very difficult to empathize with because we can’t understand why they can’t get it. Anyone ever gone to a machine where you had to put in your credit card and you put your credit card in and you realized you put your credit card in the wrong way and you have to flip it around? Those readers cost like 4 cents a piece. They could put one on both sides. But the engineer doesn’t think like that, because he knows how it works so he always puts the card in the right way. He’s cursed by his own knowledge.

We have to think experimentally. We can’t allow our tastes and our biases to guide things. Alyssa Briggs did this good experiment grid.

You start with an idea and then you write down your assumptions about the idea. What do we know, what do we assume about the customers in their world? The world that they live in. Then we form a hypothesis. So if we do this, this segment or this percentage of people will do that. Then we run the experiments. So we have description of the experiment and the metrics of how we’re going to measure that experiment. Then what did we learn? And what will we do next? That’s a very important question. What will we do next? How will we learn more about this? Fundamentally, we have to remember this is about people. We’re not solving technology problems. We’re solving human problems. We’re solving experience problems. Solving human problems means actually talking to humans. A lot of people are trapped by this idea that their intuition is right because they’ve been doing this so long that I know what people are going to do. You don’t. You know what you will do. You know what the people who are like you will do. But 99% of the time we’re not designing things for us. We’re designing things for the general public. We’re designing things for people who are NOT like us. So we have to do research.

There’s this learning curve and it’s important to know that as you do more research and as you get more information about something it’s going to start to plateau. And you’re going to start to see that okay, now things are starting to make sense. We’ve asked enough questions that now things are starting to make sense. And design starts there. Not there. Because zero questions times zero people equals zero knowledge. You have to ask questions. And you have to ask questions of more and more people.

There’s this confidence curve. You have an idea and you’re pretty confident. This is a great idea! Yeah, let’s go do this. And then you start doing research and you get into this valley. As insight starts to come in, you get into this valley where you’re no longer confident about your idea and then you do more and more research. And the idea kind of reforms itself around this new insight that you have and your confidence increases again.

A lot of people will get this idea with high confidence and they start working. Some people know to do research, but then they stop here. They get insight and they’re not confident. We have to do enough that we can get out of that dip, and that’s when we begin design.

Empathy is a very important tool. I think we all know that. We’ve talked a lot about empathy and how to understand people better. But it’s still a difficult process, especially for people who are more analytical and have less emotional intelligence, like myself. So we need tools. We have to understand what people think and feel. What are their major preoccupations? What are their worries? Their aspirations? What do people see? What is their environment like? What do their friends say? What else is out there? What’s in the market? What do they hear? What do their friends, their boss, influencers in their world, what are those people telling someone? What do they say and do? What is their attitude in public? What is their appearance, their behavior towards others? What’s their pain? What are they afraid of? What keeps them up at night? What are they really worried about? What are their frustrations, and the obstacles in the way of them completing their task or their goal? And then finally what do they gain? What do they have to gain from this? What are their wants and needs? What are they hoping to get out of something?

So by answering these questions, filling in this matrix, you can get a pretty good idea of where someone is coming from. And then with an analytical and experimental mindset, you can use this tool, this matrix to guide decisions based on what you’ve learned about this person or that segment.

We have to understand incentive, and we have to understand what motivates people, which is tricky territory. There’s kind of this big gray area between incentives and motivations and not exactly the right thing. We have to understand what incents somebody to take an action? And how do we use that to create something that is delightful? Something that someone will take joy in or maybe tell their friends about?

So if something is difficult to do and there’s low motivation and low incentive to do it, eh. If something is REALLY difficult to do it, and they have no incentive to do it, forget it. You’ve lost them. If something is relatively easy to do and they’re highly motivated, this is where you contribute the most value.

Now the danger zone up here is interesting because you have something that is difficult to do and they REALLY want to do it, and if you pull that off, you’ve tipped the scale to the point where they now buy in. They had a sense of pride and ownership in completing a difficult task and accomplishing something that was important to them. But if you don’t deliver that value, there’s very high expectations there. If you don’t deliver that value, you can do a lot of negative, a lot of brand tarnishing, a lot of really destructive thoughts inside that person about the experience that they just had. We have to be careful there.

And also as we go, we have to remember that stakeholders don’t always know what they’re doing. Anybody watch this show? Is he the guy you want to listen to? We’ve all encountered those people. They’re on every team. Every client’s got one. They’ve got this one guy who keeps hammering away at this point. You’re like “no… no.” But you can’t have that discussion or that dialogue unless you’re equipped, unless you really understand what the problem is. We have to do that research to understand.

A good example. Most people have been to a restaurant website. Most restaurant websites suck. So if you listen to the chef or the restaurant owner, the things they want on the home page. We’ve got to have the photo slide show so they know what it looks like. And a virtual tool so they can walk through and get the ambiance of the restaurant. And a social media link and a photo of the chef and the team because that’s really important. But ultimately we don’t care about that. We want to know if they’re open. We want to know how to get there. We want to know what the menu is like.

There’s been some discussion about this hamburger icon. Most of us know what the hamburger icon is. There was some debate about the effectiveness of using the hamburger or the hamburger with the word “menu” or “navigation,” or just the word “menu.” Think about how frustrating it is to go to a restaurant website and they hit the word “menu” and they just get a list of links. The dominant pattern, the “menu” button is not the right noise in that situation. We have to considered the desired outcome. The desired outcome is how do I get there, where is the phone number, give me a Google maps link. Chances are you’re already interested in the food or you wouldn’t be looking at the website.

Here’s a good example. A coffee house in Atlanta. Pretty good spot. So I wanted to get the address for this particular shop. But as you notice I scroll down the first page and the address wasn’t there. So I had to click to go to the other location to get the address and there’s the hours. Are they open? That’s the effort I had to go into to figure out the address and what time they were open.

Now check this out. So I type Octane Coffee. Look at that! There’s the address and phone number. Now the people who own Octane Coffee don’t like this. Because you didn’t visit their website. But is the website visit the important metric? Or is someone buying the cup of coffee the important metric? So the design decision is we have to put the right meta‑data on the site so Google is smart enough to pick this up and make it easier for you to get this information. I don’t care about the website visit. I want somebody in my shop.

So design is not always the artifact and not always the visuals. Sometimes you have to think about what is that person trying to accomplish and make that the most important thing even if it’s ugly. I can’t tell you how much restraint it took not to put Craigslist in this. But I’ll show you a couple other websites that I think are some of the best designed on the internet.

All the visual designers in the room just cringed a little bit. This is disgusting, but it’s beautiful. Why? Because you can go here and you can find information that you want. You can click it and there you are. No cruft, no B.S. It makes it super easy to get the news. Compare that with CNN or somebody like that where it’s just all this vomit on the screen.

Drudge does 15.5 million monthly uniques. 109 million monthly visits. 587 million page views. They’re not public, so the information isn’t readily available. But rumors say that they do 3.5‑4 million a year in revenue for a two‑person operation on a single page website. That’s not too shabby. I would take that gig, right?

Plenty of Fish was in the news recently also. Not going to win any visual design awards. Not that interesting to look at. But it accomplishes a very important goal. 20 million monthly active users. And it was just acquired for almost half a billion dollars. For an ugly, poorly designed website. But it accomplished user goals. The behavior was there. People went there and accomplished what they wanted. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It has to work.

In 2001, Sean Belnick was 14 years old and he had been playing with computers and websites and all that. He went to a hackathon and was helping a furniture company. He built a site and started advertising. That’s a Yahoo store. If a client comes into your site and says I need a solution is a Yahoo store the first thing you think of? No, it’s not. But he threw this together and had his first order within an hour. He made $2,000 the first day. If you want a folding chair, that website demonstrates they have the folding chairs.

It’s simple, to the point. They have demonstrated authority in that business. They have demonstrated they have product. They have demonstrated they have value. It’s not going to win design awards. But they did $42 million in annual revenue selling folding chairs with an ugly website.

Log live the web. Long live design. They’re not going anywhere. But maybe web design, maybe that concept of building web pages, maybe that’s dead. The page is a tool. It’s not the result. The page is a tool to accomplish a user’s goal. We also have to think about these billions of people and millions of devices who are seeing the web for the first time. As connectivity rolls out around the world to communities that haven’t had it yet, their web, their experience with the web is an entirely different one than the ones that we grew up on, the ones that we helped build. There are people on this planet who will never see the internet on anything more than a phone. There are people who will never visit the traditional idea of a website. They don’t use the web that way. They use apps. They use chat apps instead of e-mail.

I think it was about a year ago, my 14‑year‑old son who is all over the web. You know, he’s in all these apps and doing stuff. Hard core gamer. Actually sponsored. Pretty good with technology. He understands the screens. And he wanted to send me something. I said just e-mail it to me. What do you mean? I don’t have an e-mail address. I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never sent an e-mail.

Think about what a shift that is from the world we live in where all we do is bitch about our e-mail. He’s never done that. So there’s this rise of the fourth platform. This ambient computing thing where billions of people using apps and services are going to use the web and use these things that we build in entirely new ways. If we’re going to be effective in building experiences for all those different ways that people are going to interact with technology, we have to get this concept of web design out of our heads. We have to think about how are we leveraging these technology tools and all of these things that we have to accomplish the users’ goals. To help someone get something done efficiently and pleasurably and hopefully with a little bit of delight so they want to come back.

Then there’s all this stuff. How many people in this room have a wearable device? Right now? About half. As technology grows, there’s going to be more and more of this stuff clipped to our shirts or our wrists or our shoes or embedded in our ear osar something. And all of that stuff has to use the same platforms that we think of as the web to communicate and it’s not a visual thing.

We have to know how to design for what’s coming with smart homes and a fridge that knows when you’re out of eggs and automatically orders them for you. And things that we can’t really comprehend yet. Of but as experience designers, we have to think about where the technology is going and if we’re doing things the right way. We’re helping people use technology in a way that accomplishes their goals, regardless of whether it’s ordering cat litter on Amazon or cooking an omelet.

Also, think about all the different cultures and their view of the web. This guy is not going to use your website. He might not know about this device, the brick. This thing is called The Brick because it’s about the size of a brick. And it maintains simultaneous satellite, terrestrial, wi‑fi connections. And gives people access to the internet in very remote areas anywhere on the planet.

It’s not fast. But it gives people access to things that they’ve never seen before. And if we’re designing these beautiful experiences with 3meg Jpegs and animation and fancy Java Script nonsense, that’s not going to work for them. They need information, they need utility. That’s the vast majority of people on this planet. Until connectivity speeds get everywhere and get to these large, diverse groups of people that are just now starting to experience the web, we have to think about them. We have to think about how our stuff impacts them and how it helps them accomplish their goals. How does it help them communicate? How does it help them sell stuff or buy stuff?

With all these new connections, we have new challenges. New things we need to think about. So we have to redesign design thinking. Ultimately we have to rethink our design thinking. We have to remember that business goals are more important than visual impact. Business goals are more important than code quality. Business goals are not more important than user goals. We have to think what’s best for this customer then what’s best for this business. And the magic happens when we find that overlap between business goals and users’ goals, that’s where the great design happens regardless of what it looks like.

We’re all pretty well educated and we’ve done a lot of work and we know a lot of things about how the web should work and we probably have some ambitions and some philosophies about where the web should go and how it should be. We probably have some strong opinions, but we can’t let them get in the way and prevail over the decisions of the best interests of the ultimate beneficiary: The user.

We have to have strong opinions, that’s fine. But strong opinions should be weakly held. You should be open to that discussion. Be open to that dialogue. As Dr. Julius put it.

Each of us is standing on a spot where no one else stands, and we have a very unique perspective, and we should share that perspective and we should listen to the perspectives of others. Ultimately we, as experience designers, get to control a little bit of what gets put into this world. We are the experts. We know best. But we can’t let that get to our head. We can’t let that confidence cloud our decisions. Because we also have to remember that we don’t know everything. I mean it did take 5,000 years for somebody to put wheels on a suitcase.

Sometimes the best solution is hiding in the shadow of our own egos. So we have to take that step back. We have to ask those hard questions. We have to dig in. We have to remember that outcomes are more important than outputs. Impact is more important than assets. And humans are valued more than technology.

Thank you for your time.


Russ Unber:

Thank you, J. Lunch is served. We will see you back at 1:30 for the rest of the afternoon!

J Cornelius:

I’ll be around if you want to chat.

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