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Shake the Dust

Written by Anis Mojgani
This is for the fat girls.
This is for the little brothers.
This is for the school-yard wimps, this is for the childhood bullies who tormented them.
This is for the former prom queen, this is for the milk-crate ball players.
This is for the nighttime cereal eaters and for the retired, elderly Wal-Mart store front door greeters. Shake the dust.
This is for the benches and the people sitting upon them,
for the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns,
for the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold up their children,
for the nighttime schoolers and the midnight bike riders who are trying to fly. Shake the dust.
This is for the two-year-olds who cannot be understood because they speak half-English and half-god. Shake the dust.
For the girls with the brothers who are going crazy,
for those gym class wall flowers and the twelve-year-olds afraid of taking public showers,
for the kid who’s always late to class because he forgets the combination to his lockers,
for the girl who loves somebody else. Shake the dust.
This is for the hard men, the hard men who want to love but know that it won’t come.
For the ones who are forgotten, the ones the amendments do not stand up for.
For the ones who are told to speak only when you are spoken to and then are never spoken to. Speak every time you stand so you do not forget yourself.
Do not let a moment go by that doesn’t remind you that your heart beats 900 times a day and that there are enough gallons of blood to make you an ocean.
Do not settle for letting these waves settle and the dust to collect in your veins.
This is for the celibate pedophile who keeps on struggling,
for the poetry teachers and for the people who go on vacations alone.
For the sweat that drips off of Mick Jaggers’ singing lips and for the shaking skirt on Tina Turner’s shaking hips, for the heavens and for the hells through which Tina has lived.
This is for the tired and for the dreamers and for those families who’ll never be like the Cleavers with perfectly made dinners and sons like Wally and the Beaver.
This is for the biggots,
this is for the sexists,
this is for the killers.
This is for the big house, pen-sentenced cats becoming redeemers and for the springtime that always shows up after the winters.
This? This is for you.
Make sure that by the time fisherman returns you are gone.
Because just like the days, I burn both ends and every time I write, every time I open my eyes I am cutting out a part of myself to give to you.
So shake the dust and take me with you when you do for none of this has never been for me.
All that pushes and pulls, pushes and pulls for you.
So grab this world by its clothespins and shake it out again and again and jump on top and take it for a spin and when you hop off shake it again for this is yours.
Make my words worth it, make this not just another poem that I write, not just another poem like just another night that sits heavy above us all.
Walk into it, breathe it in, let is crash through the halls of your arms at the millions of years of millions of poets coursing like blood pumping and pushing making you live, shaking the dust.
So when the world knocks at your front door, clutch the knob and open on up, running forward into its widespread greeting arms with your hands before you, fingertips trembling though they may be.

Where Have The Users Gone?

Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal  writes about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business . He is the author of the forthcoming book “Hooked: How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits ”.

Step 1: Build an app. Step 2: Get users hooked to it. Step 3: Profit. It sounds simple and, given our umbilical ties to cell phones, social media, and email inboxes, it may even sound plausible. Recently, tech entrepreneurs and investors have started to look to psychology for ways to strike it rich by altering user behavior. Perhaps you’ve read essays  on how to create habit-forming technology and figured you’d give it a shot?

Well hold your dogs Pavlov! Though I’m an advocate  for understanding user behavior to build high-engagement products, the reality is that successfully creating long-term habits is exceptionally rare. Changing behavior requires not only an understanding of how to persuade users to act — for example, the first time they land on a webpage — but also necessitates getting them to behave differently for long periods of time, ideally for the rest of their lives.

The good news is that that companies that accomplish this rare feat are the ones associated with game-changing, wildly successful innovation. Google, Apple, Twitter, and Android come to mind. As we enter a world where, according to Paul Graham, everything is becoming more addictive , the companies that successfully form and control habits in the future will come to dominate the industries of tomorrow.

Habits or Hype?

But claiming that habits are the keys to success is a tall order. If people like me provide ready-made formulas and guidebooks on how to create habits , why isn’t every company that alters user behavior succeeding?

Zynga, an enterprise whose business model depends on hooking millions of people to its games, is hemorrhaging users employees  and investors . What makes some habits stick while others die like virtual cows on their way to slaughter?

Turns out that like any discipline, habit design has rules and caveats which explain why some products change lives forever while others create fleeting fads.

Habits are LIFO

New behaviors have a short half-life as our minds tend to revert back to our old ways. Experiments show  that lab animals habituated to new behaviors tend to regress to their first learned behaviors over time.

This helps explain the overwhelming evidence that people rarely change. Research shows that nearly everyone who tries to lose weight gains back the pounds  within 2 years. Two-thirds of alcoholics who enter a rehabilitation program will pick-up the bottle  and their old habits within a year’s time.

Old ways die hard and new habits smother easily. To borrow a term from accounting, behaviors are LIFO — last in, first out. This presents an especially difficult challenge for product designers trying to create businesses based on new behaviors.

Keep ’em Guessing

If long-term habits are so hard to create and new behaviors are the ones most likely to be abandoned, how do product designers stand a chance of becoming part of users’ daily lives? The answer lies in the reason users start using the product in the first place: rewards.

In nature, things are relatively predictable — fire is always hot — so our brains drive us to figure out how things work. Thus, habits are just a way for the brain to improve reaction time by not thinking as much. “Hmm, last time I touched the fire, it hurt. I won’t do that again.” In fact, much of what we do every day is habit, requiring little or no conscious awareness.

We’re fine flying on cognitive autopilot. That is, until we encounter something new. When the unknown threatens our safety, we feel fear. But when we know we’re ok, this temporary uncertainty is experienced as novelty, and our brains can’t get enough of it.

For example, watch a baby’s first encounter with a dog. Not only is it incredibly cute, it is a demonstration of the mental wiring which makes us inherently curious. “What is this hairy monster in my house?” the baby must think. “Will it hurt me? What will it do next?” The child is filled with questions, uncertain if this creature will cause it pain or bring pleasure. When it’s certain the dog isn’t a threat, the baby experiences delight , exploding in a burst of infectious giggles.

Until one day, the kid learns enough about the pup to predict its behavior. Suddenly, the doggy is no longer entertaining and the child’s attention moves on. Now he is occupied with dump trucks, fire engines, bicycles and candy — things that stimulate the senses in new ways. Poor Rover is left all alone.

To keep our attention, products must have a degree of novelty. Withoutvariability , users figure out the patterns and tire of the experience. As Tadhg Kelly wrote  about Zynga users, “Their play brains start to realize that they are seeing the same frames again and again, with the same actions and the same constraints. So [the games] become instantly boring.” Though the Zynga “-Ville” franchise was novel, even addictive at first, once players figured out the larger game mechanics, they moved on.

Machines vs. People

But not all habits have the fleeting life span of FarmVille-style games. In fact, many products do form long-term behaviors. What differentiates World of Warcraft or Facebook — products that retain engaged users for years — from bygone fads like Pac Man or Tamagotchi , which hooked users for a while, but quickly lost their grip?

A distinction can be drawn between rewards that are infinitely variable versus those which have finite variability. Products with finite rewards are built to be experienced the same way. Even an addictive video game always operates under the same rules. Of course, the maker can alter the dynamics of the game, changing aspects of play based on the users’ actions, but the fundamental rules, the mechanics, remain the same.

The game is a constructed system, a machine, and if it is a single-player game , it will be enjoyed, completed, and discarded. Even bestselling books, movies, and music follow the same usage pattern. Once these products are made, they don’t change and become nearly worthless after their mysteries are revealed. Their variability is exhausted when the game is completed, the last page of the book is turned, or the lights come up in the theater.

Nearly all of us have played a slot machine, but ultimately, we figure out the rules and patterns and come to understand that the game is designed to take our money, so we move on. Addicts however, those who form uncontrollable and often detrimental obsessions, are the exception rather than the rule. And while businesses should never try and encourage addiction, the fact is that like slots, technology products with finite variability do not form long-term habits in most users.

However, some products are built to be infinitely variable. These products involve rewards users find novel for long periods of time. For example, few things are more fascinating to people than other people; we always want to know more. Whether communicating with loved-ones or keeping up with celebrity gossip, we love the infinite possibilities endemic to the human experience.

Even World of Warcraft, the legendary multiplayer online role-playing game, is more about collaborating with others than completing the game. Though users can play aspects of the game alone, it requires characters to work together in groups to overcome major challenges. World of Warcraft players spend hours strategizing and socializing, both on and off-line. It’s more than a game; it’s a tribe .

Even a bad experience will not stop people from using products with infinite variability. Early iPhone users cursed AT&T for years, even heckling Steve Jobs on stage to show their displeasure. But few could bear to abandon their “Jesus phones ” because compared to rivals, the iPhone and its accompanying app ecosystem was a panacea of limitless possibilities.

Facebook users revolted multiple times when the company made changes to its interface. But they never left in any significant numbers, helping push the social network to over a billion users. Of course today, Facebook has lost some of its luster as it grapples to control user behaviors migrating to mobile, a massive disruption to its business model.

No Guarantees

No business can ensure customers use its products forever. Our consumption habits today will inevitably be replaced with new behaviors in the future. But it is important to recognize that products, which leverage infinite variability tend to be pushed out by disruptive innovations whereas finite variability business fizzle out by themselves.

Habits do not ensure perpetual users, but short of a disruptive change , they provide an opportunity to form a sustainable competitive advantage. The products that become a facet of users’ everyday lives will remake the web. By understanding the kinds of rewards systems that create long-term habits and the rules of habit design, companies can improve lives  while building lasting businesses.

— Follow Nir on Twitter@nireyal.

Thank you to Maurits Kaptein of Science Rockstars  and Max Ogles  for reading versions of this essay.


The salesman and the developer


A salesman and a developer go on a bear hunting trip.

They arrive at the cabin in the woods and start unpacking the car, moving stuff into the cabin, getting things ready for a week of bear hunting in the wilderness. The salesman quickly gets bored of this and says:

“Tell you what, you continue unpacking and getting everything ready, and I’m going to go and find us a bear.”

The developer sighs and nods (he’s used to salesmen), and continues setting up while the salesman vanishes in the woods.

Half an hour later, as the developer is about three quarters done with getting things ready (the cabin is now all neat and tidy at last), he hears a very loud growl as he comes out of the cabin. Twenty metres away, the bushes start shaking. Out shoots the salesman. Right behind him, a huge, snarling, drooling, roaring monster of a bear. It’s twice the size of a normal bear, and it’s very, very angry.

As the developer hides behind a chair, the salesman runs right up to the cabin, with the bear on his heels, and just as he’s about to go through the door he quickly leaps to the side. The bear crashes past him right into the cabin, and the salesman deftly closes the door right behind, locking the bear in. Loud noises can be heard as the bear begins trashing the inside of the cabin.

The developer emerges from behind the chair. The salesman cheers and says:

“Woohoo! That’s the first one. Now, you kill him and skin him, I’ll go find us another!”

Two perspectives

There are two ways to understand this story, and which way you favoured largely depends on whether you’re a “builder” type or a “sales” type.

If you’re a builder type, you see this as a great story that illustrates a common problem with salespeople: they don’t seem to care about what happens after they make the sale. Actually delivering the project is hard work, but by then the sales guys have moved on to something else, so they don’t care (and, as an additional problem, in some industries the salespeople will sell stuff that can’t be realistically delivered).

However, if you’re a sales type (like my cofounder, Paulina), you have a different perspective on this story. It’s yet another story that makes fun of salespeople while completely discounting just how hard it is to not only find that damn bear, but bring it back and get it through the door.

Who’s right, then? Both, of course. In business, you need both to find and sell clients, and the ability to then deliver what you sold them. One without the other is not a business.

Sales is not optional

Many people who “do startups” these days are from a technology background. In other words, they’re builders rather than salespeople. And, like all builders, they tend to disregard sales as something that can happen later, something secondary that we’ll solve when we get to it.

Well, sales isn’t secondary. Speaking as a builder type myself, and having experienced businesses both with competent sales and without, I now believe that having someone whose job it is to go and find clients willing to give you money from day one is so important, that I would not start any company without such a person.

Sales don’t happen without someone energetically pushing the product, service, or whatever it is you’re intending to sell. Some may dream of products that sell themselves, like Dropbox or the original Apple II, but even awesome products like those took serious sales effort to get off the ground. Apple had Steve Jobs, one of the master salesmen of his generation, pushing the product everywhere he could and striking bold deals to get the company off the ground. Dropbox endlessly tweaked their referral scheme before they went viral.

Some few businesses like Google or Facebook or Instagram get to figure out the business model later. They can do without sales, perhaps. But this model only works in one place in the world, and unless you’re starting up in the Silicon Valley bubble, your business is not a business without sales.


Monkeys, Bananas, Step Ladders And Water Sprays.

Posted: June 11, 2012 | Author: John Ford

Many of you may have heard the myth of the monkey/ladder/water-spray experiment, which put like that sounds rather odd. What not so many people know is that said experiment is not a myth. In 1967, it was conducted by G R Stephenson, under the title ‘Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys’ .

The experiment ran as follows. Stephenson collected 5 monkeys and locked them in a cage. From the ceiling of the cage, he hung a bunch of bananas, which could only be accessed by a step ladder leading to them, which the monkeys could climb. There was, however, a catch. Every time a monkey started to climb the step ladder, that monkey was sprayed with ice-cold water. Not only that, but the other 4 monkeys were sprayed with cold water as well. This was repeated every time a monkey attempted to climb the ladder until the monkeys became conditioned: no monkey must climb the step ladder.

Stephenson then replaced one of the monkeys with a newcomer. Just one. Fairly quickly, the newcomer spotted the bananas and went for the step ladder. But the other monkeys – knowing the drill by now – quickly rushed to stop the newcomer, screaming and snarling at him and even scratching him. Without any intervention by the scientists – with no water even being sprayed on him – the new monkey immediately became conditioned as well.

Stephenson then went on to replace the other monkeys in turn. Remarkably, every time a new monkey was added and went for the step ladder, all the monkeys that had been conditioned rushed to stop him, screaming, snarling and scratching. Even those who had never been sprayed before joined those who had in beating the new monkey.

Eventually all of the monkeys had been replaced. None of them had ever been sprayed with cold water, yet none of them dared to climb the ladder to get the banana. When the final new monkey was added, they rushed to uphold the rules as before.

The new monkey would be justified in questioning this behaviour. And what could the other monkeys say? They had never been sprayed. Yet if they were to answer, they would probably say something like this:

“That’s just the way we do things here. It’s just how life is.”

That sounds familiar…

Initially, the learned response not to go up the step ladder made sense. But soon it was rendered redundant – the scientists had not sprayed any of them since the first of the new monkeys was added – yet it continued to be upheld…

Human beings are also (and even more so) creatures of habit. We are used to going through life obeying social norms or customs, that were adopted for a reason that must have been important at some point in time. But how many of those are outdated and should be changed or  be improved on? Fortunately we have the capacity for change. Although as the new monkeys found out to their cost, it is not always easy to fly in the face of popular beliefs.

Nonetheless, this experiment highlights the remarkable power of behavioural conditioning, mob mentality and the importance of questioning social and cultural beliefs and customs.



Military slang terms used by various branches of the United States military during World War II.


SNAFU, which stands for the sarcastic expression situation normal: all fucked up, is a well-known example of military acronym slang. It is sometimes bowdlerized to all fouled up or similar. It means that the situation is bad, but that this is a normal state of affairs. It is typically used in a joking manner to describe something that’s working as intended. 

The attribution of SNAFU to the American military is not universally accepted: it has also been attributed to the British.


SUSFU (situation unchanged: still fucked up) is closely related to SNAFU.


FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition/any repair/all reason), like SNAFU and SUSFU, dates from World War II. The Oxford English Dictionary lists Yank, the Army Weekly magazine (1944, 7 Jan. p. 8) as its earliest citation: “The FUBAR squadron. ‥ FUBAR? It means ‘Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.”


TARFU (totally and royally fucked up or things are really fucked up) was also used during World War II.


BOHICA (bend over, here it comes again) is an item of acronym slang which grew to regular use amongst the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War. It is used colloquially to indicate that an adverse situation is about to repeat itself, and that acquiescence is the wisest course of action.


Surprisingly Good Evidence That Real Name Policies Fail To Improve Comments

from TechCrunchTechCrunch 

YouTube has joined a growing list of social media companies who think that forcing users to use their real names will make comment sections less of a trolling wasteland, but there’s surprisingly good evidence from South Korea that real name policies fail at cleaning up comments. In 2007, South Korea temporarily mandated that all websites with over 100,000 viewers require real names, but scrapped it after it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments (the policy reduced unwanted comments by an estimated .09%). We don’t know how this hidden gem of evidence skipped the national debate on real identities, but it’s an important lesson for YouTube, Facebook and Google, who have assumed that fear of judgement will change online behavior for the better.

Last week, YouTube began a policy of prompting users to sign in through Google+ with their full names. If users decline, they have to give a valid reason, like, “My channel is for a show or character”. The policy is part of Google’s larger effort to bring authentic identity to their social media ecosystem, siding with companies like Facebook, who have long assumed that transparency induces better behavior.

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” argued former Facebook Marketing Director, Randi Zuckerberg. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.” For years, the national discussion has gone up and back, between critics who say that anonymity is a fundamental right of privacy and necessary for political dissidents, and social networks who worry about online bullying and impact that trolls have on their community.

Enough theorizing, there’s actually good evidence to inform the debate. For 4 years, Koreans enacted increasingly stiff real-name commenting laws, first for political websites in 2003, then for all websites receiving more than 300,000 viewers in 2007, and was finally tightened to 100,000 viewers a year later after online slander was cited in the suicide of a national figure. The policy, however, was ditched shortly after a Korean Communications Commission study found that it only decreased malicious comments by 0.9%. Korean sites were also inundated by hackers, presumably after valuable identities.

Further analysis by Carnegie Mellon’s Daegon Cho and Alessandro Acquisti, found that the policy actually increased the frequency of expletives in comments for some user demographics. While the policy reduced swearing and “anti-normative” behavior at the aggregate level by as much as 30%, individual users were not dismayed. “Light users”, who posted 1 or 2 comments, were most affected by the law, but “heavy” ones (11-16+ comments ) didn’t seem to mind.

Given that the Commission estimates that only 13% of comments are malicious, a mere 30% reduction only seems to clean up the muddied waters of comment systems a depressingly negligent amount.

The finding isn’t surprising: social science researchers have long known that participants eventually begin toignore cameras video taping their behavior. In other words, the presence of some phantom judgmental audience doesn’t seem to make us better versions of ourselves.


Stating the Obvious

by Joshua Porter  |   August 1st, 2012  |  shortlink:

It could be that your users are always attentive, always aware of what’s going on with you and your product or service. They are always up-to-date with what you offer, where they are in their progress with you, what account they’re logged in with, what payment plan they’re on, and what they were doing last with your product.

Or, it could be that they’re just like the rest of us and trying to stay afloat while their attention is being pulled in a thousand directions at once and could use you reminding them what seems like it should be obvious.

A couple points about obvious:

  • Obvious almost always isn’t. With the sheer number of different world views people have these days one person’s obvious is another person’s revelation.
  • Nobody minds when we state the obvious. Not even geniuses. That’s because it’s a helpful part of normal human communication…where we set context in talking with others. It builds confidence that we understand each other and are on the same page. It is often necessary before jumping to that the next step in the lifecycle.
  • In UI design, obvious is usually about describing a user’s current state. As I wrote about in Designing for the Next Step, communicating the current state is a crucial part of preparing someone to take the next step. To gain confidence about where we might go we first need to know where we are.

The other day when I logged into Google on my iPhone I was presented with a simple little message telling me what account I logged in with. (I have three Google accounts…I think)

As a designer it would have been super easy to assume that this wasn’t necessary…indeed for a while Google didn’t tell you what account you logged in with, but then it became frustrating when you tried to access your Gmail or Calendar when you were logged in with a different account. By stating the obvious (that you just logged in with a certain account) Google is making it more likely that you don’t have this frustration anymore. (granted the mere fact that we log in with different accounts to the same service is a problem in itself…this is a decent solution for the current structure of Google’s service)

In short, stating the obvious too often gets a bad rap. But when the first priority of user interface design is clarity, often the most important thing we can do is to state the obvious.


Designing For Android: Tips And Techniques

By Jamie McDonald

Android is an attractive platform for developers, but not all designers share our enthusiasm. Making an app look and feel great across hundreds of devices with different combinations of screen size, pixel density and aspect ratio is no mean feat. Android’s diversity provides plenty of challenges, but creating apps that run on an entire ecosystem of devices is rewarding too.

Android devices in various sizes.
There are hundreds of Android devices with different screen sizes and resolutions. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

At Novoda, we build Android software for brands, start-ups and device manufacturers. We often work with visual designers who are new to Android. The new Android Design site is the first resource we recommend. You should definitely check it out. However, there is plenty more to pick up! The goal is to create apps that people love to use. Thoughtful UX and aesthetically pleasing visual designs help us get there.

This article provides a set of practical tips and design considerations for creating Android apps. I’ve tried to include something useful whether you’re crafting pixel-perfect graphic assets, finding an optimal user flow or getting your hands dirty developing XML layouts.


Visual design is hugely important in the perceived quality of an app. It might even improve usability. Most developers have some exposure to UI patterns, but developers with visual design skills are rare. They really need you. Delivering high-fidelity mock-ups, drawable resources (i.e. graphic assets) and guidance to developers is the best way to deliver an aesthetically pleasing experience to the end user.

Scale Nicely

Android is a platform of many screen densities. There is no set of resolutions to target, rather a density independent measurement scheme for graphics, widgets and layouts. This is covered in depth in a previous Smashing article and the official documentation, so I’ll just add a mention of this neat web tool for calculating density pixels.

Screen densities.
Optimize graphics for different screen densities. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

It’s not always practical to hand optimize graphic assets for each density. The platform can scale resources down reasonably well. However, it’s always worth testing designs on low-end devices and optimizing resources that scale badly.

Be State Friendly

Touch states provide important confirmation of clicks and selections. When customizing widgets such as buttons, it’s important to create drawables for all necessary states (such as default, focused, pressed and disabled). The focused state is essential user feedback on devices that support directional pad or trackball navigation.

Size is important too. Touch input is imprecise and fingers occlude the UI as they interact with the screen. Touch targets should normally be at least 45 density pixels in width and height.

Use Fonts

Android has two fonts: Droid Sans and Roboto. Roboto was released in Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4). It’s been compared to Helvetica, but it’s a little condensed, which is great for small screens. You’re not limited to Roboto or Droid Sans, though. Any font can be packaged within an app in TTF format (with some memory overhead).

Roboto font.
Roboto is Android’s new font, introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Use 9-patch Drawables

9-patch drawables allow PNGs to stretch and scale nicely in pre-defined ways. Markings along the top and left edges define the stretchable areas. The padded content area can optionally be defined with markings along the bottom and right edges. 9-patches are essential for creating and customizing UI widgets.

Draw 9-patch.
Create scalable widgets with Draw 9-patch.

It’s possible to create 9-patches manually, but the Android SDK comes with an nice, simple tool called Draw 9-patch. This makes it quick and easy to convert a regular PNG in to a 9-patch. It highlights the stretchable area and displays previews of the resulting drawable with different widths and heights.

Handle Design Legacy

Honeycomb (Android 3) and Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4) modernized Android’s visual design with the Holo theme. However, some device manufacturers have a poor reputation for keeping platform versions up-to-date. Some of today’s most popular devices will never be upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Meetup screenshot.
The Meetup app makes everybody feel at home with separate Gingerbread (Android 2.3) and Ice Cream Sandwich widgets.

So what can be done? There are two options. Deliver the current look, feel and experience to all devices or use a separate set of widgets styles and drawables for Gingerbread and below. Both approaches are valid. Would your users prefer modern or comfortably familiar?

Showcase the Brand

Sometimes clients fear that sticking to recognized UI design patterns will make their apps less distinctive. I think the opposite is true. As patterns like the action bar become ubiquitous, they fade into the background. Users can spend less time wondering how to use an app and more time appreciating how elegantly your app solved their problem. That experience is much more valuable for the brand than a one-of-a-kind UI for the sake of differentiation.

Color navigation screenshot.
The original Color app had an online FAQ for the UI controls. Make sure that navigation is intuitive.

Branding can be expressed through design of icons, drawables and widgets, as well as in the choice of colours and fonts. Subtle customization of the standard platform widgets can achieve a nice balance of brand values and platform consistency.

Create High-Fidelity Mock-Ups

High fidelity mock-ups are the best way to communicate visual design to developer responsible for implementation. The Android Design website provides templates in PSD and other formats. It’s important to try mock-ups out on real devices to confirm that they feel right, with UI components sensibly sized and placed. The Android Design Preview tool allows you to mirror mock-ups directly from your favourite design software to an attached Android device.

A practical approach for mock-ups is to work against the screen characteristics of the most popular devices. Ideally, create mock-ups for each alternative layout required by screen size or orientation.


Attention to detail is key. Become involved in the development process to ensure that your designs are realized. As a developer, I would always prefer to work with active designers than those who deliver mock-ups and resources before disappearing into thin air. Designs need to be iterated and refined as the app develops.

Animated transitions provide some visual polish that many Android apps lack. Developers might not include such things on their own initiative. Make them part of the design when they make sense. Aside from transitions, animations are a great way to keep users distracted or entertained when the app needs to make them wait.

User Experience

Android has patterns and conventions like any other platform. These help users to form expectations about how an unfamiliar app will behave. Porting an iOS experience directly to the Android platform almost always results in a poor user experience.

Back buttons in Android and iOS.
Back is a platform affordance in Android. In contrast, labeled back buttons within the app layout are the norm for iOS.

The back button is the best illustration of the interaction differences between Android and iOS. All Android devices have a hardware back button or on-screen navigation bar (including back button). This is universally available as a feature of the platform. Finding a back button within an Android app layout feels weird as an Android user. It makes me pause to think about which one to use and whether the behaviour will differ.

Design User Flows

At the very simplest level, Android apps consist of a stack of screens. You can navigate in to the stack with buttons, action bar icons and list items. The platform back button allows you to reverse out of the stack.

The action bar mirrors a web convention, where the app icon to the left of the action bar usually takes you to the top level of the app. However, there is also the up affordance, intended to take advantage of structural rather than temporal memory. This is represented by a backwards facing chevron to the left of the app icon. This signals that pressing the icon will navigate one level up in the information hierarchy.

Up affordance.
The up affordance allows the user to navigate up an information hierarchy instead of going to the top level of the app.

The purpose of the up affordance might be subtle at first. Android apps can have several entry points in addition to the launcher. The Intent system allows apps to deep link each other and home screen widgets or notifications might take you directly to specific content. The up affordance allows you to navigate up the information hierarchy regardless of where you came from.

Try user flows on potential users with wireframes or mock-ups and iterate. Prototypes on real devices are ideal because they allow you to test in realistic mobile environments. This might seem like a lot of effort, but remember, you only need to try things out with a few users.

Be Platform Consistent

UI patterns are your friend. It’s much better to think of these patterns as tools than constraints. Users would prefer not to have to learn to use your app, so patterns provide familiar hints about how to navigate and interact.

Action bar is the most widely adopted Android pattern. It tells you where you are and what you can do. It’s a native feature of the platform since Honeycomb and the excellent Action Bar Sherlock library makes it available on older platform versions too.

An example of the dashboard and action bar patterns.

The dashboard pattern is also quite widely used. These grids of icons are usually presented to the user when they launch an app. Dashboards provide top level navigation and describe the primary areas of the app.

I worked on the Songkick app, where we used a dashboard draw out the content of the app with full-bleed images.

The  workspaces pattern can be implemented with the ViewPager component. This allows users to swipe screens left and right between content. This can be used in conjunction with tabs to provide a more fluid browsing experience with tabbed data.

ViewPager swiping.
ViewPagers allow users to swipe left and right. Page indicators or tabs make this navigation discoverable.

The ribbon menu is an emerging navigation pattern. This allows us to launch the user directly into content and provide the top level navigation in a menu, which slides in from the left side of the screen when you press up.

Ribbon menu
The ribbon menu is an alternative to dashboard navigation.

Tablet optimized apps often take advantage of multi-pane layouts. A single tablet screen can display the content of several separate phone screens side by side. Optimising for tablets can involve creating several alternative layouts for different screen widths. Sections of UI can be designed once and laid out in different configurations for different screen sizes. Multi-pane layouts help to avoid overly wide list items and sparse layouts.

Multi-pane tablet layout
The Economist news app uses multi-pane tablet layouts so users can explore the hierarchy of content on a single screen.

These are familiar and proven UI patterns. They’re the best tools for starting to sketch out your app layouts and navigation. However, they shouldn’t discourage you from trying something new. Just ensure that the app behaves predictably.

Design Responsively

Android is a platform of many screen sizes. The devices that I can lay my hands on in our office compose a spectrum of screen sizes from 1.8 to 10.1 inches (as long as we ignore the Google TV). With variable screen area, Android has something in common with responsive web design. There is no getting away from the fact that design and implementation of a responsive experience across the full range of devices takes a lot of work. Supporting every screen is the ideal, but there are also sensible strategies for coping with the diversity of the platform.

Knowing a little about your target users and popular devices can help focus efforts and avoid premature optimisation. A good default strategy is to target popular, middle sized phones (3.2″ – 4.6″) and then optimize as necessary with alternate layouts and user flows for particularly small (<3″) devices and tablets.

It’s always best to be orientation agnostic. Some devices have physical keyboards that require the device to be held in landscape. The on-screen keyboard is also easier to use in landscape. Text entry on touch screens is awkward an error prone, so let’s at least give our users the benefit of the landscape keyboard.

Understand Mobile Interactions

People interact with mobile apps differently from websites or desktop software. Mobile apps rarely have the undivided attention of a user and most interactions use touch input, which is not as precise as we might like.

Mobile interactions can often be measured in seconds. We recently developed a location-based app that allows users to check-in at bars. We counted the clicks on user paths such as check-in, considering whether each step could be avoided or simplified. We specify everything that an app should do as user stories. The most frequent stories should be as quick and easy to accomplish as possible. It’s particularly important in this scenario, because the user might be under the influence of alcohol…

Optimize First Use

First launch experience is crucial. Apps are often installed in response to a real world problem. If the first run isn’t satisfying then the user might never return. If the app requires sign up, offer preview functionality so that users get a feel for the experience. They probably need to be convinced that it’s worth filling out that sign-up form. Also consider using analytics to measure points where users drop off in the launch and sign-up process.

Many apps launch with a tutorial. This is usually an admission that the app is too complicated, but if you’re sure that you need one, keep it brief and visual. You might also want to use analytics to confirm that a tutorial serving a purpose. Are users that complete the tutorial more active? How many users just skip the tutorial?

Bring the App to Play

User experience considerations shouldn’t end in the app. It’s worth putting a bit of thought in to the Google Play Store listing to ensure that it’s immediately obvious what the app does and why the user would want it.

These Graphic Asset Guidelines will help you to create promotional material suitable for the various contexts and scales in which they appear. Some of these graphics are a pre-requisite for being featured too.

Layouts, Styles and Themes

Android has a visual layout editor and it’s getting better all the time. However, I still find myself developing XML layouts by hand. This section gets down to implementation details, covering some best practices for crafting maintainable and performant layouts. Visual designers might want to skim this section, but some awareness of implementation details can’t hurt.

The most general purpose layouts are RelativeLayout and LinearLayoutRelativeLayout should be favoured for efficiency, whilst LinearLayout is useful for distributing space between views using weights. GridLayout was new in Honeycomb. This is useful for creating complex layouts on large screens without nesting. Nesting layouts too deep is bad for performance and code readability alike!

Let the Framework Do the Work

The Android framework provides automated resource switching based on folder structure. This means that you can have separate graphic assets and layouts for different screen sizes and densities by arranging them in the correct folders. It goes much further than that. For example, you could switch color resources for different platform versions or even animation durations for different screen sizes.

Resource folder structure.
The framework provides automatic resource switching.

Since Honeycomb, it’s also possible to switch resources on available screen width in density pixels. This is a move away from the bucketed small, normal, large and extra-large screen size switching. It facilitates responsive design and allows multiple layout switching points (perhaps switching to a tablet-optimized layout at 600dp with another alternative at 800dp). It’s typical to have multiple layout files with different configurations of the same components for different screen characteristics.

State list drawables make being state-friendly easy. These allow you to specify different drawables for different states of a UI component in an XML file. As mentioned earlier, representing states properly provides important user feedback.

01 <selector xmlns:android="">
03   <item
04     android:state_focused="true"
05     android:state_pressed="true"
06     android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_pressed_focused" />
08   <item
09     android:state_focused="false"
10     android:state_pressed="true"
11     android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_pressed" />
13   <item
14     android:state_focused="true"
15     android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_focused" />
17   <item
18     android:state_focused="false"
19     android:state_pressed="false"
20     android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_default" />
22 </selector>

Extract Values

It’s good practice to keep layout XML clean of explicit colours and dimensions. These can be defined separately and referenced in your layouts. Defining colours and dimensions separately promotes visual consistency and makes things easier to change later on. Extracting these values allows switching of dimensions on different screen sizes, orientations and platform versions. This is useful for tweaking padding for small screens or increasing text size for readability on large screens, which tend to be held further away from the face. Perhaps res/values/dimens.xml contains:

<dimen name="my_text_size">16sp</dimen>

whilst res/values-sw600dp/dimens.xml contains:

<dimen name="my_text_size">20sp</dimen>.

Use Styles and Themes

A good technique to keep layout XML maintainable is to separate the styling concern from the positioning concern. Every View in a layout needs to have at least a width and height attribute. This results in a lot of boilerplate, which you can eliminate by inheriting from a set of base parent styles.

01 <style name="Match">
02   <item name="android:layout_width">match_parent</item>
03   <item name="android:layout_height">match_parent</item>
04 </style>
06 <style name="Wrap">
07   <item name="android:layout_width">wrap_content</item>
08   <item name="android:layout_height">wrap_content</item>
09 </style>
11 <style
12   name="MatchHeight"
13   parent="Match">
14   <item name="android:layout_width">wrap_content</item>
15 </style>
17 <style
18   name="MatchWidth"
19   parent="Match">
20   <item name="android:layout_height">wrap_content</item>
21 </style>

Recurring sets of attributes can be moved into styles. Widget styles that occur almost universally throughout the app can be moved into the theme. If a particular type of button always has the same text color and padding, it’s much cleaner to specify the style than duplicate these attributes for each occurrence.

1 <style
2   name="MyButtonStyle"
3   parent="MatchWidth">
4   <item name="android:padding">@dimen/my_button_padding</item>
5   <item name="android:textColor">@color/my_button_text_color</item>
6 </style>

We save four lines of attributes when we add the button to a layout. The layout file can be concerned with just the positioning and unique attributes of widgets.

1 <Button
2   android:id="@+id/my_button"
3   style="@style/MyButtonStyle"
4   android:text="Hello, styled world!">

You can take this further by overriding default button style in a theme and applying it to an Activity or the entire app in the AndroidManifest.xml.

01 <style
02   name="MyTheme"
03   parent="@android:style/Theme.Holo">
04   <item name="android:buttonStyle">@style/MyButtonStyle</item>
05 </style>
07 <style
08   name="MyButtonStyle"
09   parent="@android:style/Widget.Button">
10   <item name="android:padding">@dimen/my_button_padding</item>
11   <item name="android:textColor">@color/my_button_text_color</item>
12 </style>


The include and merge XML tags allow you to drop reusable sections of UI into your layouts, minimizing duplicate XML when the same set of views occurs in multiple layout configurations.

1 <include
2   layout="@layout/my_layout"
3   style="@style/MatchWidth" />

A relatively new addition to the Android Developer Tools is Lint. This tool scans the resources in a project and creates warnings about potential performance optimizations and unused or duplicated resources. This is incredibly useful for eliminating clutter as an app changes over time and it’s certainly worth checking lint for warnings regularly during your development process.


Sometimes layouts just don’t turn out how you expected. It can be hard to spot bugs amongst all those angle brackets. This is where Hierarchy Viewer comes in. This tool allows you to inspect the layout tree of an app running in the emulator. You can inspect the detailed properties of each view.

Hierarchy Viewer.
Inspect your layout trees with Hierarchy Viewer. Those colored dots can tell you about your layout performance.

Hierarchy Viewer has a couple neat tricks for visual designers too. It allows you to inspect screens in zoomed pixel perfect mode and export the layers of a layout as a PSD.


So you’ve been introduced to the platform and the tools. What next? Ultimately, the best way to get a feel for Android is to use it every day. The most satisfying app designs have a few things in common: platform consistency, attention to detail and clean visual design. The first two, at least, can be picked up by using and analysing existing Android apps.

Android has come a long way in the last few years. The platform and the apps have become gradually more refined. Functionality is not enough at this point. There are almost half a million other apps out there, and users want polish.




Imagine: How Creativity Works

Posted by Jacob Klein

It isn’t often that a book compels me to write a review, much less post that review here on the Distilled blog.  But while reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer I found myself pausing frequently to properly absorb the cornucopia of ‘ah-ha moments’ and frighteningly actionable nuggets of wisdom that seem to apparate on every other page.

Some of the insights in Imagine are so applicable to the world of web marketing, consulting and general business-bettering that I frequently found myself folding back the corners of pages, knowing that our community would benefit greatly from theiir eir implementation.

I’d like you to consider a few of your greatest marketing achievements online or otherwise. Was there a single moment of clarity, an insight where it all became clear and your next steps became obvious?  Sure, you’d wrestled with the idea for a while but at some point it all hit you and your conclusion almost seemed too obvious to be correct.  

Perhaps you came up with the perfect landing page to nab that high volume, noncompetitive keyword.  Maybe you stumbled upon a better way to present some interesting data using an infographic.  These types of breakthroughs are often what separate good from great and can even end up defining our entire lives. We’d all love to be able to induce these events at our leisure. Imagine takes a look at some of the latest psycological and sociological studies on insight, intertwining them with real-life business achievements.  

Here are some of the major marketing takeaways from the book:

Creativity isn’t just another fixed statistic on the character sheet of life

“Not everyone can become an artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Pixar’s Ratatoullie

I won’t waste too much of your time trying to convince you that creativity is an invaluable trait for your company’s employees to posses.  The word creativity is synonymous with innovation and originality- intangibles that aren’t just the keys to winning the game in today’s fast-paced business world… theyare the game.

But are we stuck with the initial D20 roll we ended up with at birth or can we boost that stat with hard work, dedication and/or enchantment?  The answer, according to Lehrer, is that creativity isn’t really a statistic at all.  It’s more of an acquired skill that can be compounded through environmental factors, state of mind and an understanding of the phenomenon itself.

So many of us have been caught up in the idea that we aren’t creative.  Some of you may have even said they words “I’m not the creative type”.  One of the main takeaways from Imagine is that startling insights can come from anywhere at any time regardless of how artistic, dramatic or imaginative you consider yourself to be.  This fact becomes obvious as you read about several scientific studies where moments of insight are enhanced or depleted by changing environmental and/or mental variables.  Below are just a few examples touched on within the pages of Imagine.

Connections create insight

“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing” – TS Elliot

More often than not, an insight does not require the ponderer to reinvent the wheel.  Think of some of the most successful advancements of the past 20 years.  The iPhone, the hybrid car, the dry-erase board.  



Life-changing, right?

But were they truly original ideas or were they simply an evolution of an existing idea?  Steve Jobs didn’t need to invent the cell phone or micro-applications or even the touch screen himself.  He simply needed to be aware of those things and connect them in a way that functioned beautifully.  The advancement of human knowledge depends on our ability to take what others have discovered and connect it intelligently with other, sometimes unrelated concepts.

The book gives several examples of this occurring in the real business world:  A man working for a sandpaper company noticed that some of his auto repair technician customers had difficulty applying straight lines of paint to a car body.  The tape they were using contained overly-strong adhesive and ended up pulling up paint when removed.  Now, normally a sand paper salesman wouldn’t think twice about this issue but Dick Drew made the connection between sandpaper and tape which is that both are essentially a certain type of paper with a certain type of adhesive applied.  After months of experimenting with different types of glue Drew had invented what we now know as masking tape, transforming his “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company” into one of the largest corporations in the world (3M Innovations, today), selling 10 times more masking tape than sand paper a handful of years after its invention.  Great ideas come from making connections, sometimes obvious, sometimes less obvious.

At Distilled we hire people from varying backgrounds who often posses little SEO experience.  Technical skills are relatively easy to develop but finding people with the intelligence, hustle and hunger for new knowledge as these are often the traits that matter in the end.  

If you’re a fan of AMC’s Mad Men then you know that creative genius can come out of nowhere. At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the best creative pitches are often arrived at accidentally, through sleepless nights, hard work and a bit of liquor (okay, a lot of liquor). Would anyone in your organization spend sleepless nights working on an idea that may or may not work?  Does your company even allow for that sort of thing?  At 3M today, each employee is given a certain percentage of their time to work on these hair-brained ideas.  They’re given the environment in which to make these connections.  They also rotate their employees across departments in an effort to maximize the effect. You’ve heard about the power of diversity for years now and these latest examples only lend more credence to the idea.

Creativity isn’t always about ‘making something out of nothing.’  It’s more often about connecting two or more already established concepts into one beautifully cohesive solution.

Environment Matters

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted” – Albert Einstein

If you buy the idea that creativity is not a fixed number per individual then it must certainly be affected by one’s environment.  We’ve all heard about how major technology corporations spend lavishly on amazing workplaces and many wonder– is it really worth it?  The answer is a resounding: ‘Yes‘ as far as Apple, Google, Pixar, Facebook and 3M are concerned.  

At Pixar, Steve Jobs helped design a building where employees are forced to interact across all departments with strategically placed and centralized bathrooms, large empty meeting places at the center of the complex and dedicated quiet zones for relaxing and day-dreaming.  

Google also gives their employees a certain percentage of their work time to dedicate to potential new projects and this expenditure of time has birthed products such as GMail and Google Images.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg recommends creating a space within your work environment that is ‘neither Home nor Work’.  He refers to this area as a “third place”.  Here you are not constrained by the pressures of deadlines or the hum of the office but you are also not so relaxed as to be going about your normal “pants-optional” home routine.  This balance is important if you are considering creating a space like this for your creative teams.  

Imagine also gives several examples of the brain working differently when augmented with various substances.  Caffeine for instance increased ‘focus’ but caused test participants to fail more frequently at tests of insight.  Small doses of alcohol on the other hand allowed participants to think less literally and arrive at insightful solutions more regularly.  There are also examples of poets and musicians whose work can be differentiated on and off harder drugs.  This isn’t to say that drugs are a solution to becoming more creative but it does highlight the fact that the brain functioning on different wavelengths can cause insight scenarios.

Small talk, random encounters with other employees, and drunken walks along the river bank with yourShiba Inu are where these ideas often manifest.  Try allotting time for ‘disciplined day dreaming’ into your normal routine. Concentration doesnt solve all types of problems. Many solutions are found only when we stop looking and allow our mind to consider connections that we’d never normally consider.  

Brainstorming Methodology

The problems that face today’s businesses are becoming more complex.  So much so that it often isn’t probable that a single gifted human being could make a breakthrough on their own.  Much of the low hanging idea-fruit is now gone in many fields.  

One way we often deal with this problem is through the notorious ‘brainstorming session.’  The idea is that the combined experience of several participants will add up to more than the sum of its parts. There are several aspects of group-think that Imagine addresses.

The size of group matters.  If there are too many participants then you risk several or all members feeling as though they can just fade into the background while also becoming more susceptible to a herd mentality as objectors are less likely to speak up.  Too few though and  you fail to incorporate new ideas, diverse opinions, and you risk not having enough brain power in the room to complete the job.

Each day at Pixar, the animators hold a meeting in the morning to discuss three seconds of film from the day before.  They rip into each scene and debate things like the shade of orange Nemo’s finshould be.  The team is expected to give and take criticism especially well and to even get excited about the ways they can improve.  This acceptance of error reduces its cost.  ”We only get it right when we talk about what went wrong.” says Pixar. These positive cultural elements have a huge impact on the ideas that come out of a brainstorm.

Another brainstorming method suggests having participants brainstorm individually BEFORE coming to the group with the ideas.  This allows individuals to build out their own arguments beforehand while becoming excited to share them.  They’ll more than likely have ideas that are similar but come at it from a different angle.  It also allows everyone to have their own predetermined block of time within the meeting so as not to let anyone blend into the furniture.

Forcing Insight can Prevent an Insight

Often our first instinct when tackling a tough problem is to grit our teeth, down another energy drink and concentrate as hard as we can.  The problem with this strategy is that this shifts attention away from the right hemisphere of the brain (the part responsible for moments of insight and unlikely connections) and towards our left (our more analytical hemisphere).  When our minds are in this clenched state we tend to only make obvious connections and ignore the more remarkable.  You’re able to work long and hard on caffeine, Adderall and Ritalin but you are less likely to have a breakthrough.

Keep a Positive Mood

Insights are more likely to occur when you are happy.  This supports the idea of developing a great workplace, appropriate amounts of time off and working with people you enjoy.   Test subjects in a German study were more likely to solve intuitive problems designed to meausure insights if they were in a positive mood. Subjects were shown a Robin Williams clip for positive mood and a boring or scary video for negative.

Become a Child

“One needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure.” – Yo Yo Ma

Subjects in a study were told to imagine themselves as 7 year old children.  They scored higher on tests designed to measure insight such as pondering alternative uses for a car tire.  Reverting to our childlike mindsets can help strip away inhibitions and normalcies that may be chaining us to the literal and keeping us from more abstract connections.  Try asking yourself the same silly questions that your 4-year-old daughter might ask you about your business.

Color Counts

In 2009 a study found that students were able to solve almost twice as many puzzles designed to measure insight when the walls in the testing room were painted Blue.  It is thought to encourage a more relaxed, right hemisphere of the brain mentality.  Conversely students in a Red room were more alert, attentive and better able to solve analytic problems.

Write a Haiku (give your insights structure)

Look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that is precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits an iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.


“For years people believed that creativity was similar to other forms of cognition.  Whether divinely inspired or a natural “gift” but today as we learn more about the brain we’re finding how the “trick” works.” -Jonah Lehrer

“I don’t buy it, Jacob.  So we should just spend our time daydreaming in a blue room with a diverse group of lightly intoxicated people writing hiakus?!” 

The answer is yes, quite frankly.  If you work in a field where creativity, originality and inventiveness are important (and I’m struggling to think of a a field in which they’re not) you owe it to the future of your company to spend a bit of that time maximizing your most valuable resource.  It isn’t that you need to hire more “creative people”– your company needs to create an environment where moments of insight are more likely to occur with the (hopefully) wonderful folks you already have on the team.  Some of the above may be more or less effective for your particular niche than others but even a simple understanding of the nature of creativity can have a huge effect.