31 December 2015

Link roundup for December 2015


I’ve been tracking hacks for videos on posters for some time. Now, Pieter Torrez is working on another version of interactive posters. Read more about this here.

This poster was nominated (informally) as the best poster of the Dutch chemistry conference:


Hat tip to Vittorio Saggiomo and Megan Lynch.

The poster above tries to make use of readily recognized symbols. But how hard is it to make a symbol that is universally recognized? Learn the origins of... Helvetica man.


Hat tip to Atlas Obscura and Ed Yong.

In Baby Attach Mode ponders whether a student should go to a conference alone. Some students have gone to conferences without me, and I’ve been fine with that. Others, I would not have suggested they go to the conference if I thought they would go on their own.

Is simplicity in design overrated?

Is it as clear as it can be? Then no one cares how complex it is. Build complex things if you need to build complex things. Just put your good design chops to work and make them as clear as you can. It’s the one thing you can do every time.

Part of a conference is about asking questions. Here’s a guide on how to do it well. Hat tip to Toby Lasserson and Anna Sharman.

Designer Ellen Lupton talks about design processes here. I like that even experienced designers still have issues picking typefaces:

Ultimately, you end up going with your gut, but looking at history and context can be a starting point.

Speaking of which, do designers ever realize they’re bad? The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests not, but this Quora thread has some interesting insights on design just the same.

Carolina Gómez reminds us that academics are unfriendly:

in a scientific congress, it’s always harder to approach the “big heads”. It’s not impossible, but circles are so established that breaking into them can be extremely difficult and truth be told, they are not very inviting to let you join. Talking with several of my friends who have left academia, I realized the feeling is a very common one. ...

The other thing about scientific conferences is the patronizing/condescending tone that some people (big wigs or not) take when asking questions after your presentations. There is always this “frenemy” vibe to these interactions: laboratories that are working in similar fields will ask questions that are aimed to throw you down, rarely to make your research better. It’s not that the questions are destructive per se (sadly, some are) but there are questions charged with dismissal of other people’s work.

What can we do to make scientific conferences more welcoming to newcomers?

Prof-Like Substance reminds us not to make figures in PowerPoint.

I just may have gotten a smartwatch in the past week. So I was primed for this story on how Fossil is going about trying to enter the smartwatch arena. I was fascinated by how clearly they prioritized design (my emphasis).

Fossil split its team in two. One team worked closely with Intel on the raw technology, making something as small and usable as possible. Another worked on the design and identity of the products themselves. If there were ever conflicts between the two, the tech team lost.

24 December 2015

Lessons from the Miss Universe 2015 pageant: behind many fails lurk bad design choices

Anyone performing live dreads screwing up. At least in theatre, it’s unlikely to be recorded. But on television, those epic fails will live on for a long time.

This weekend, everyone was talking about this year’s Miss Universe pageant. I am not particularly interested in these events, but host Steve Harvey made an astonishing mistake on live television. He named the wrong winner.


It was just terrible for everyone concerned.

But soon after the event, the card Harvey had to read was posted:


Although this article says, “it’s safe to say it wasn’t the cue card’s fault,” it’s not that cut and dry. When the card was posted on Facebook:

The post has received almost 5000 comments, many agreeing it was understandable he misconstrued the order.

Suddenly, the path to the screw-up seems much more clear. This card did not help Harvey. And the problems with this card are ones that I see on posters all the time.

First, the card doesn’t follow our expected pattern for reading. Instead of the list running from top to bottom, after two names, it suddenly veers right into unknown territory. As this article put it:

(W)hy would they put the winner all the way down at the bottom, underneath “2nd runner up” and “1st runner up?” Everyone knows what “1st” means, and that’s just confusing(.)

There’s actually a term for the phenomenon of tending to ignore things that are placed over to the right: banner blindness. In this time of high Internet use, we’ve gotten used to mostly irrelevant stuff being shoved over to the sides, so people don’t look there very much.


The positions of the three slots on the card becomes more critical when you consider the circumstances when the card is read.

Harvey first reads the card when three finalists are standing to announce the second runner up. Then, to announce the winner, Harvey reads the card when two finalists are standing. When you have two people standing, it’s easy to make the link from the two people to the two words on the left, USA and Colombia. And which one are you going to read? 

And there’s one more problem:

“Philippines”... is printed precisely where a user would likely place their thumb.

Second, the size of the text doesn’t signal importance consistently. The best design feature of this card is that “Miss Universe 2015” is set in a large point size. But the critical word, the winning contestant, is far too small. It just vanishes off the page.

If “Philippines” had been the same size as “Miss Universe 2015,” I think the chance of a mistake would have dropped way down.

One other possibility would have been to make one separate card that declared the winner, with nothing else on it, so you could not confuse the sequence. But it’s easy to say that in retrospect, knowing that Harvey made a mistake.

I like this redesign:


Another redesign is here.

This card may well become one of the most intensely scrutinized pieces of design since the “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 American presidential election.
Everyone would like to think that they could read a card like the one that was posted. It wasn’t as though the text was unclear or incorrect. All you had to do was read. But the reality is that people make mistakes, and the way you expect someone to read a card is not necessarily the way they will read it.

External links

Look at Steve Harvey’s Card – He Was Set up to Fail
Would you be confused by the Miss Universe winner’s card?
Here’s A Look At The ‘Miss Universe’ Ballot Card That Caused Steve Harvey To Malfunction 
Steve Harvey Didn’t Ruin Miss Universe, Bad Design Did
We asked design experts if Steve Harvey's Miss Universe flub can be blamed on the ballot card
Don’t Blame Steve Harvey: Bad Design Caused the Miss Universe Fiasco
Last night’s Miss Universe screw-up could have been prevented with good UX

Hat tip to Sakshi Puri.

17 December 2015

Using bad design to make a good point

Crossposted, with slight edits, from NeuroDojo because I am way behind on grading!

Michael Eisen recently took all the journal titles off descriptions of his papers on his lab website. This upset some people, which Eisen chalked it up to “the cult of the journal title.”

Alternate hypothesis: maybe it upset people because it was a bad design decision.

In exploring design on this blog, one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned has been that good design is about empathy. Good designers empathize with their users, anticipate their needs, and fulfill their needs.

One of the things a person going to a lab publication list wants to do is to be able to find articles that interest them. Removing journal titles makes it harder for users to find articles. And while many (but, importantly, not all) articles have DOIs and links, they are not necessarily things that people relate to as much as a journal title. If you need to scribble a reference on a piece of paper – which you often have to do at a conference – a journal name, volume, and first page number is easier than a DOI link. Change one digit in a DOI and it doesn’t work at all. A journal based citation has more forgiveness for error.

The argument that you don’t need journal titles because everything is on the Internet overlooks that the Internet doesn’t need journal articles. People do. And people don’t always have great access to the Internet, like, say, at a poster session in a conference where there is not always WiFi. People work with imperfect memories (some of us more than others) before starting a search on Google Scholar or PubMed. There are many papers that I look at, and I will never commit the DOI or link to memory. I remember the journal that papers were published in quite regularly, though. I don’t remember journals because of their Impact Factors, but because of the content of the journal, the layout and formatting, and other features. A PLOS ONE paper looks different than a PeerJ paper.

By removing a piece of information that users expect and want, Eisen is not meeting the user’s needs. Quite the opposite, he’s explicitly criticizing users who want this information. But good design is not about the designer. It’s about the experience of the end user.

That said, running in the opposite direction is no better:


This was a joke from Yoav Gilad (archived by Claus Wilke; it doesn’t look like that now). But for the sake of argument, let’s analyze it anyway. Here, the changes in text size for the journals (related to Impact Factor) is, for those outside of academia, pointless, and therefore confusing. For those in academia, it looks like an ego trip. (“Oooh, look at the fancy journal I published in!”)

Again: design is not about you.

Now, there is more to life than good design. Removing journal titles from a publication list is a successful act of advocacy against evaluation by “prestige,” which is a much-needed discussion to have. But it may be that users are upset not (only?) because of a cultish belief that journal titles are important signifiers of quality, but because they realize that the design effectively gives them the finger by leaving out something they want.

External links

What’s in a journal name?
Picture from here.

10 December 2015

The next big thing... or dead thing?

Lots of poster presentations would benefit from having something that’s hard to show on a static, flat piece of paper. The question becomes how to bring in other elements, like video. People have tried a lot of hacks, several of which I’ve described in this blog. The latest contender? Near field communication (NFC) chips.

Biochem Belle pointed me towards NFC technology, which this article says are meant to pick up where QR codes left off. Basically, NFC chips are a quicklink to the web, like QR codes. The difference is that instead of scanning a code with a phone camera, you tap your phone to a spot.

Belle asked if this could be something used on posters. My gut reaction: no. Or at least, not yet. It’s too new and unfamiliar, not transparent, and takes too much work on the part of the recipient. And what percent of phones are NFC enabled? This 2011 article suggested slightly more than half of phones would have NFC by this year. But I can only find predictions, not actual numbers for right now.

We’ve seen how QR codes are used. A few people using them on posters, but they never really took off as an enhancement to posters. NFC chips don’t seem to solve any of the issues QR codes did.

Having thought about this for a few years now, I think that the digital future of poster presentations is not in things that let you link to other sources, but in lots of big, cheap screens.

03 December 2015

Lessons from sex toys: you have to let other people try things out

And I thought I was pushing the envelope when I talked about how lingerie design could inform poster design. Well, here we go for the edge of the envelope again...

This post was inspired by the article on the design of sex toys. Once you get past the giggles inherent in talking about sex toys, it’s a very thoughtful article on design more generally, and there are lessons that can be applied to conference posters.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone designing anything must always have empathy for the end user. That article talks about how you have to know those users in detail, not just in a vague, “they’re kind of like this” way.

For instance, if a designer is making something to be held by a hand, there are measurements for every dimension of the hand. And not just for one hand, the average hand, either — measurements exist for every dimension of the 5th and 95th percentiles of hand size as well. “But that’s just not available for designing sex toys,” (engineer Janet) Lieberman says. There is no corresponding data for vulvas. There is no official classification for the many different types of vulvas, and no sense of how common each type might be.

For conference posters, this might mean considering the average height of people, which would affect where the eye level of a reader is. You should also think about the readers who might have problems like colour blindness or presbyopia.

The part of the article that made me think the most about my own design practices, though, was the discussion of user testing. Sure, it might sound like fun at first... but think about being the first to try an untested prototype with your most sensitive bits.

(N)ot surprisingly, getting data on the efficacy of a sex toy isn’t always easy. “If you’re designing a (children’s) toy, you can put 10 kids in a room together and have them all play with that toy and get a bunch of data really quickly,” says Lieberman. But with adult products, designers and engineers are rarely present for the actual product testing, and getting feedback can be challenging. With Eva (a hands-free vibrator for use during intercourse), Lieberman found that women who tested it out struggled to describe why something did, or didn’t, work well for them. And the trials are time-consuming: a week’s worth of testing time for each pair of participants. ...

Dame Products has also employed the services of a team of gynecological teaching associates — women trained to provide medical students with hands on guidance through the particulars of performing a GYN exam — for one-on-one product testing sessions. Though the GTAs don’t provide insight on how Eva works during intercourse, they do help the Dame Products team examine how well the vibrator is secured by a wide array of labia; and, with their training in anatomy, they’re able to offer the nuanced, thoughtful feedback that many earlier testers could not.

I realized that it had been a long time since I had showed drafts of my posters to anyone else before printing them. This is dumb of me. I rehearse my presentations I give with slides. Why don’t I do something similar for posters?

Now, having written this blog for over six years, maybe I do have a little more knowledge that allows me to create something passable without having other people look at it. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for user testing.

Back in February, when I did a poster workshop, I did a little user testing, and noticed:

(T)he difference between the intended order of information, and how people actually looked at the poster. Even... posters, with a clear three column order, were not often read in that order.

How I think people will read through my posters is no guarantee that this is how they will actually read through them. There is no substitute for criticism and feedback. I badly need to get into the habit of showing my posters to others before taking them to the conference again.

As I was writing this post, I saw this on Facebook, from my buddy game designer John Wick:


FIRST RULE OF GAME DESIGN: External contact always causes dramatic change to your design.The moment you hand any game—...
Posted by John Wick on Tuesday, November 24, 2015

One problem, though, in getting proper feedback is that printing full-sized can be expensive. It would be helpful if you could print a greyscale draft version on cheap newsprint paper before going to the full-coloured glossy paper.

Finally, the article talks about another barrier to getting the feedback you need for great design: social pressures.

“The only difference I noticed [between designing mainstream and adult products] was the stigma… that was attached to designing a vibrator compared to another consumer electronic product,” says Béhar.

People don’t want to talk about their experience with sex toys. (See this probably NSFW this Sex in the City clip about the reluctance to talk about them and the difficulty in getting user feedback.) I’m willing to bet that when most people get a badly made sex toy, about all that happens is silent grumbling to themselves. There are strong conventions about keeping sexual experiences private, so it takes a certain amount of courage even to leave a one star review on an online shopping site.

There’s a similar social stigma about calling out bad posters or presentations at conferences. We might say, “Did you see that?” sotto voce at the conference lunch table. We might write a tweet. But to say to a speaker at the time, “The design of your poster needs work” doesn’t happen all that often, because we’re worried about being rude. And that’s impeding our ability to get better posters and presentations.

Related posts

Lessons from lingerie
More lessons from lingerie: details versus decoration

External links

Why aren’t vibrators as good as other gadgets?
Let’s stop enabling bad speakers

Hat tip to Gerty Z. Picture from here.