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Elexicon's blog on the nature, scope and meaning of our work. We love putting our passion for disciplines like content strategy, user experience design, and open source development into words and pictures. We'll also share our thoughts on the latest topics and trends impacting your business' and customers' digital ecosystems.

05
Dec

Review: The Wacom Cintiq Pro24

Posted by: Calvin Chopp

As a designer, I’m always looking for ways to improve my workflow by practicing my craft, honing in my skills, and looking for tools—both software and hardware—that might make me a better, more proficient designer.

Years ago, I began using a graphics tablet to aid in my design process for digital illustration, photo editing, graphics creation, etc. Almost immediately I saw the benefits of using a tablet over relying  solely on my mouse to navigate my designs. The pen provided a much more natural editing experience than clicking around with a mouse, and made the analog illustrator in me happy. Beyond that, the literally thousands of pressure sensitivity levels through the pen on the tablet give so much control with photo editing, illustration, and design work compared to the single pressure level of a mouse. I now encourage any budding designer to invest in an at least an entry-level graphics tablet to help improve their design workflow. It only makes sense.

Years after purchasing my first Wacom Bamboo tablet, I wanted to upgrade my available design real estate, which brought me to the Wacom Intuos Pro Medium. The Intuos served me well for 5 years, yet my ultimate goal was to invest into a tablet that offered the flexibility of designing directly on the device. After much research, I eventually purchased the Wacom’s Cintiq Pro24.

The CintiqPro is one of Wacom’s flagship design tablets. This particular model and its siblings the Cintiq Pro 13 and 16 were released earlier this year, with the 32″ model being released a little over a month ago.

The Pro24 has a 24″ 4K  screen with superb color accuracy—able to display 99% Adobe® RGB. I won’t get into all the specifics on the hardware, but if you’re interested, you can find details here.

Set Up

Wacom’s long been the target of complaints from people having issues with their drivers and installation on their products. For my part, I’ve never had issues with installation for any of their products.

The CintiqPro comes with essentially every cable you’d need depending on the computer configuration that you’re running.  I’m working on a late-2014 Macbook Pro, so my connectivity setup includes a DisplayPort cable with DisplayPort-to-Thunderbolt 2 adapter (both supplied by Wacom), as well as a USB cable for all functionality of the tablet to work properly.

The cables tuck in nicely to the back of the hardware, making cable management a bit easier,while allowing for different angles to adjust the display for working comfort. If you find yourself with $3,000+ burning your pocket, Wacom also makes a product called their ProEngine that fits nicely into the backside of the display where the cables plug in. This essentially turns your design tablet into a workhorse computer—no longer requiring an external computer to power it. If you want to pretend you’re going to buy that and see some specs, check those out here.

I will say that on my computer, those inputs get quite crowded. Fortunately, I would rarely use both of my external monitors alongside the tablet for my work. Still, I will be investing in a new DisplayPort-to-Thunderbolt cable soon, so it won’t be quite as crowded. For those running computers compatible with USB—C, such as the newest Macs outfitted with Thunderbolt 3, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Calibration of the pen and display was also a breeze, and took mere minutes to run through. Within 15 minutes of getting the product out of the box, I was up and running and ready to design.

First impressions

Yeah, this thing is big. If you’re going to invest into a graphics tablet this size, make sure you have sufficient desk space to accommodate it. The tablet itself weighs nearly 16lbs, so it might not be super comfortable to use in your lap, but I also would argue that’s not the intended purpose of this device. I’m honestly thrilled with how much real estate there is to work on here, and the 4K resolution is great, so the tradeoff between portability and real estate is favorable.

The surface of the tablet itself is great to design on. The top of the tablet is completely flat etched glass which gives a very natural feeling for the pen. Because the surface is devoid of bevels, it’s also  incredibly comfortable to lay your arm on, and you can travel the full surface of the display without interrupting your pen stroke.

Wacom also has a model of the Cintiq Pro24 that supports touch functionality. After much research, I opted out of that $500 upgrade, as many designers and artists I read about complained of glitchy performance, which often resulted in them just turning off the touch functionality while designing with it. With the ExpressKey Remote functionality (covered below), I’m able to cover basically all the bases I need if I really want the ‘convenience’ of touch functionality (minus the glitchiness and added $500 pricetag).

The CintiqPro also comes with Wacom’s new Pro Pen 2.

The pen itself is a bit narrower than its predecessors and is very comfortable in the hand. The pen has virtually no lag or parallax on the display, supports tilting or shifting of the nib for different design effects, and doesn’t require a battery at all.

The pen touts 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity, compared to Microsoft’s Surface Pen at 4,096 levels of sensitivity (and added requirement of a battery) or other smart pens like the Apple Pencil. The Wacom Pro Pen and other Wacom hardware are engineered and built specifically for design professions, and their product orientation reflects that. So I’d argue that the comparison isn’t direct, though Apple, Microsoft and others also provide good alternatives. I’ve read plenty of articles that compare and contrast Wacom products to those produced by Apple or Microsoft, but it’s a little ‘apples-t0-oranges.’

Because of the edge-to-edge screen, Wacom has obviously removed any physical buttons from the surface. The power button is along the top edge of the tablet, and the side edges have inputs for USB and MicroSD card slots. And there are a number of  under-glass buttons that allow you to access system and display settings along the top right edge of the display when under power. All of the actual hotkeys and controls from past tablet models now live in Wacom’s ExpressKey™ Remote. The remote itself is included with the Cintiq Pro24, but can be purchased separately from Wacom for a little over $100 and is compatible with other Wacom products.

This thing is awesome.

The keys are fully programmable and allow you to toggle between commands. Because the remote isn’t connected to your tablet, you’re able to position the keys where it’s comfortable for you. This is especially great for right or left-handed designer’s preferences. The remote itself also has a magnetized base so it stays in place on the device if you have it resting on the side. Wacom provides a charger for the remote, which plugs directly into the tablet, and allows you to use the remote while charging as well.

Final Thoughts

OK, I won’t say these will be technically my final thoughts since I’ve only been able to use this for less than a week, and I’m  planning to do a follow up after I’ve been able to use it for a greater length of time. What I will say is that the design experience on this thing is incredible. For me, integrating a graphics tablet into my design workflow was a game changer years ago, and investing in the CintiqPro 24 is just another huge step in that process. I’ve already seen it help aid in the accuracy and speed that I’m able to edit photos, illustrate, and produce designs.I can’t wait to find additional opportunities to continue using it to further develop my skill set and offerings to our clients.

Product Pros & Cons

It’s a product review. Can’t have one without a pro/con list, so here you go.

PROS

  • A beautiful 4K display.
  • A large, completely flat design surface to work on
  • The build-quality and apparent durability of the device.
  • The ExpressKey Remote is super convenient and is very easy to configure.
  • The battery-free Pro Pen 2 with 8,000+ levels of pressure sensitivity.
  • An adjustable base for design-angle flexibility.
  • Out-of-the-box connectivity options from Wacom make set up easy.

CONS

  • At just over $2,000.00 for the non-touch model, it’s pricey.
  • The large size won’t be for everyone. It’s not a tablet you’re going to take to the coffee house with you to work on.
  • The DisplayPort-to-Thunderbolt 2 converter is a bit bulky (but I am thankful it was provided).
  • The cables in general are long. Not a huge deal, and it does allow you to move the tablet around quite a bit, but cables all over my desk drive me nuts.

 

Here’s a quick sketch I did the night I set up the tablet, which was the same night of Stan Lee’s passing. I’m forever grateful to him for his creativity and the universes he crafted. He was an inspiring individual to me who was part of the driving force that encouraged me to pursue a career in art and design.

27
Jul

‘Elexicon’ defined

Posted by: Brion Eriksen

As founder of Elexicon, one of the most frequent questions I get is “where did you come up with the name?” Sometimes they follow up with … “It’s cool!” — so these folks just answered their own question: It popped into my head, and I thought it was cool! 🙂

But what made it “just come to me?” Well, it was 1998 (cue flashback visuals and sound effects), and I started a business to follow new opportunities in the web site design and development space. I also wanted to remain focused on my background and ongoing freelance services in technical communication, information architecture, user interface, and marketing communications (all these things converged nicely into web design, of course). All things Internet and dot-com those days had an “e-” attached to their name, so I started the classic scratch-pad exercise: “E-Communication”? “E-Userinterface”? “E-Infoarchitecture”? Nah … but the word “Lexicon:” now we’re getting somewhere. A Lexicon — a unique language and vocabulary — brings meaning, understanding, and purpose to a branch of knowledge, a culture, a sport, a brand. In our new business, we’d master the “E-lexicon:” the lexicon of interactive communication and digital interfaces. Perfect! It’s all one word, capital E, no hyphen: Elexicon.

Even in those early days, domain names for businesses were getting snatched up left and right, so my hands were shaking when I secured elexicon on Network Solutions. As a purist, I take not a small amount of pride in having “elexicon.com,” not “ElexiconTeam.com” or “ElexiconUSA.com.”

So next time we see each other (hopefully soon!), you’ll have that answer and we can get to whatever other questions you may have!

01
Mar

I miss my home (button)

Posted by: Brion Eriksen

I love all of Apple’s bold design decisions … except this one.

I have now been using my iPhone X for the better part of two months. Owning and using previous versions of the amazing device since 2007 has gradually and reliably increased my productivity and added new elements of delight with each release. But by removing the iconic “home” button from this latest iteration of the device, I feel like some friction has been added to this otherwise smooth path of progress.

Why?

So, why did Apple remove the home button? In some ways, I feel like I should just understand why they did it by using the new phone without it (but I haven’t). At the same time, as a UX designer I’ve done my share of reading news and reviews and consuming podcasts to get the general gist of what they were thinking.

  • First, there’s that over-arching strategy of moving to an ecosystem of devices without wires or physical buttons, just as digital music phased out vinyl and magnetic tape. This is a segment of a “frictionless” future with less touching and tethering that includes everything from voice-driven smart speakers to checkout-less grocery stores.
  • Dovetailed with that, there’s the parallel strategy to (already) replace the biometric security of your fingerprint using TouchID (so soon?) with what is stated to be an even higher level of scrutiny: Unlocking the phone with your face.
  • Running evenly alongside the no-physical-buttons strategy is the move to a top-to-bottom, bezel-to-bezel screen. (Look! The whole phone is a screen!) This feels like an innovation for the sake of an innovation, like Apple had explored every possible other corner of the that’s-cool universe (and every inch of the iPhone’s structure), and decided that they had nowhere to go but to offer a full-screen front.

But, was one of those reasons “It’s more user-friendly”? No … I’m not sure I’ve heard or read about usability being a big part of the strategy. Because the new device, inarguably, is less usable.

Living without a home button

Fans of the iPhone X may jump into the comments section and counter-argue, but here are some examples of my plight.

Swiping is harder than pressing. An upward thumb-swipe from the bottom of the device has to be about 10x more physically taxing than pressing a button … it reminds me of the saying that it takes 10 times more facial muscles to frown than to smile. I don’t know if either is actually true … but why am I even talking about a new Apple product being more “physically taxing,” even if I’m sounding silly and wimpy about the muscles in my lower hand?

This beauty needs a case. The previous issue segues into this next one: At a $1000 price point and a structure made of glass on both sides, using a case is a requirement. So a hearty enough case makes the thumb-swipe even more of a chore … my thumb needs to bump and trip over the bottom of the case, land on the white horizontal virtual-swipe-here strip, and keep skidding upward to complete the swipe.

Also, with a protective case, the bezel-to-bezelness of the screen seems less so, and the “speed bump” of the case edge happens on all sides. (Granted, of course, there are “thin” case models that do not present such a challenging edge, but I like the more robust protectiveness of my Tech21 case.)

(As a side note, I should also mention the counterintuitive absurdity of the iPhone: The more beautiful and sleek the product design, the more you feel the need to protect its shimmery fragility. More than any version before it, the X model is even more slippery and eminently droppable and crack-able. So, the X is a lovely thing, but into the hefty protective case it goes.)

FaceID is harder than TouchID. I’m a big fan of TouchID. It’s easier than typing in a passcode to unlock the lock screen, and now FaceID takes that level of ease backward. FaceID is not only harder than TouchID, it’s harder than the Passcode. FaceID requires 1.) lifting the phone in front of your face, then 2.) the upward swipe. TouchID allowed you to open your phone with a finger-touch of the home button, while bringing the phone into your line of sight, not after you’ve brought it near your face.

Relying on your face to unlock the phone eliminates the ability to quickly check or use the phone while it’s sitting off to the side on a desk, or when simply pulling it briefly out of your pocket but keeping it at your side. (Another cynical “guess” at the strategy here: Apple wants to sell you an entirely separate Apple Watch for these kinds of interactions.)

By “harder,” I mean “often ridiculous.” FaceID-plus-swiping has written a few tragic chapters into the history of Apple UI’s. Have you run into this monstrosity yet? If you have your settings set to require FaceID to authorize an app download or iTunes purchase, you first need to trigger the process by clicking the side/power button:

Doube Click *what?* to install?

Raise your hand if you tapped on “Double Click” several times before you realized “they mean the side button.”

Also, the home-buttonless technique for closing out your open apps has now become a devil-dance for your thumb’s fine-motor control. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not a big deal … But there I found myself saying out loud what had rarely been part of an Apple maven’s vocabulary: “This used to be easier.”

What about the trade-offs?

Are the above annoyances offset by the bezel-to-bezel screen, and FaceID’s increase security and other “fun” features?

The pretty much, almost edge-to-edge display. Notice I didn’t call the screen “edge to edge” or an “endless” screen like one of those luxuriously mystifying endless pools you see in fancy resort-spa commercials. There’s still a bezel, it’s just pushed outward at the top and bottom. But the now- notoriously iconic “notch” is basically a de facto bezel at the top. The wonderment of having “screen” space in the upper left and right of the phone interface is lost on me.

This feature simply doesn’t score many points in the “pros” column, and in fact only puts a couple check marks under “cons.” With the screen now filling out to the rounded edges, the interface conjures a feeling of going backward to CRT screens, before LCD’s brought us a truly rectangular 16:9 like we saw at the movie theater, complete with corners and everything. Nobody ever decided to round the corners of a cineplex screen, a plasma TV, or a MacBook Pro display.

I’ll take my top and bottom bezels back, please. An “endless” edge-to-edge experience from side-to-side would be nice — similar to what Samsung has been doing for a few years.

Fun with FaceID. As mentioned before, FaceID is a more secure means of biometric authentication than TouchID — 20x more secure according to commonly stated claims. This sounds good!

However, being a FaceID cynic, I had to ask: Was hacking of TouchID rampant? The answer seems to be “not really,” although Apple does appear to have some work to do to make TouchID even more secure. This article summarizes how TouchID can be hacked, but also acknowledges how difficult it is. (Think: Convincing your victim to make you a mold of their fingerprint in Elmer’s glue.)

Now that FaceID is developed, my preference would be to bring back the home button and keep FaceID as an option, as well. Enterprise I.T. departments may enjoy setting up high-risk devices to require both fingerprint and facial authentication. Now that FaceID is here, I’m not suggesting that it needs to go away … I just feel like this first attempt at integrating facial recognition into the phone-unlock process has been a dud.

Giving your face away

I’ve never been a militant I.T. security fundamentalist, but the latest round of no-touch/no-wires technology has given me some pause. I wasn’t crazy about giving Apple a “true-depth” scan of my face, and I haven’t jumped on the smart speaker bandwagon. I’m ignoring the latest iOS’ incessant pleas to “finish my installation” by importing my credit cards into Apple Pay. I’m beginning to feel like I can live on this plateau of technological innovation for a while. Heck, I’m still using iTunes, still paying $1.29 so I can own every song. Like driverless cars, FaceID seems like an innovation that is out-running practicality.

The way forward

Facing another 10–11 months with the iPhone X — before I’m eligible for Verizon’s trade-in/upgrade program—I’ve attempted to add the “virtual” home button. Here are instructions on how to do this … but I don’t recommend it. This feature is a hold-over for iPhones whose home button was damaged, and doesn’t play nice with FaceID and the swipe bar at all … it’s kind of a mess.

This stop-gap virtual button does conjure visions of a more useful under-screen-based home button that actually works. Perhaps positioned in the bottom “tray” between your most-used apps and including TouchID, it could be the perfect solution to my ills. Some “insider” reporting is trending toward predictions that the home button will soon be a goner, retired to the User Interface Hall of Fame, enshrined next to the iPod Click Wheel. Elsewhere in the rumor mill, Apple is reported to simply be rapid-prototyping authentication interfaces in real time.

If Apple truly is keeping an eye on user feedback and opinion, as this Forbes article suggests, then let this review be my testimony. As long as there is an iPhone model available that still features a home button and TouchID, that’s the one I’ll buy. I hope those models remain available for a long time.

 

08
Sep

 

Let me be clear. Things aren’t clear.

I crave clarity. I think most people do to a certain extent, but seriously — I’m in a stretch of going bonkers with all things unclear:

  • Parking meters that don’t specify active days and times.
  • Quick service restaurant digital signage menus that hide many of the prices and items in favor of slow-mo footage of bubbling soda and extreme food closeups. (I know, just another reason NOT to do fast food.)
  • The online user experience I had to endure last week for one of my financial accounts.
  • covfefe.
  • Construction barrels that reside along roadways for weeks on end without any apparent road work to support.
  • Medical billing statements. Actually, pretty much anything having to do with the word “medical”.
  • A no smoking sign above an ash tray. I don’t smoke, so maybe this is clear? Seems like a mixed message to me.
  • This example which is really, really TL;DR … so to speed things up, let’s just say “Automated Parking Lot Machines”.

I can assure you the above is a very partial list, and for most of these, I have no control or remedy. But when it comes to communicating clearly in written, verbal, and visual communications for clients, I’m fortunate to be able to put my angst to work and strive to make things clear.

 

What is clear?

It’s pretty clear what “clear” means, right? It’s a powerful word attached to everything from what you hope for in the skies as you lift off the runway to the kind of water you prefer to swim in, to what kind of definition you expect to find in a dictionary. Which by the way defines clear as:

 

“Easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.”

 

That definition is clear, but it’s also important to note the connection between clear and accurate. It should go without saying that something clear, but wrong … isn’t of much positive value. So getting things right goes hand-in-hand with getting things clear. If we are passionately clear about something, but rest on our laurels when it comes to accuracy, we get ships that are clearly unsinkable and an earth that is clearly flat.

 

Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163

 

Taking this a bit further with that latter example in mind, the root problem of the (mostly pre-Aristotle) flat-earth presumption isn’t just the idea itself. Wrong ideas and bad information enter our consciousness all the time for a variety of reasons. However, the flat-earth fear that fooled many people for centuries had at its core an inability or refusal to continue to pursue, perceive, and interpret the presumption on increasingly deeper levels — to have a zeal for clarity and certainty regarding how viable the flat understanding was.

But there were some who had the zeal. There were some clarity curmudgeons like Aristotle who kept going … kept questioning … kept revisiting what people thought they knew … and that made all the difference in the world. Because when you crave clarity, you’ll make the extra effort to tack into the headwinds of assumption and wind up with the lovely discovery that you aren’t doomed to fall off the ocean’s edge after all. You just keep sailing on to new truths and new assumptions to challenge.

So it’s worth diving a little further into this idea of making things clear, and maybe teasing out what might be going on when we do and don’t.

 

Why aren’t things clear, and why should I care?

I think there are many forces working against communicating clearly, but a partial list might be:

1) General apathy toward the effort. The constant barrage of words and images in our lives means even creative communicators have become overworked and over-busied, and therefore complacent in response to things unclear. In short, when things are unclear, a fallback position of “ignore it and move on” might be in play.

2) Our clear isn’t someone else’s clear. Many factors affect clear communication including life experiences, cultural nuances, and the amount of passion someone has to work toward clarity in either receiving or sending communication signals.

3) Stockholm syndrome. This might be a stretch, but it’s possible that vagueness or a lack of clarity has held us captive for so long it starts to become an accepted state of being or even a welcomed source of comic relief. I think in some strange way, we’ve started to expect or even enjoy having things unclear encircle us. With everything everywhere seeming unclear and out-of-whack, we’ve pre-loaded our brains with cathartic rants like “Oy. Another contradictory study about the effects of coffee.” Or “Why do I even bother to check the weather?”. We grumble, vent and chuckle about things unclear all the time — and the endorphin trickle that results keeps us numb enough to carry on. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that at the true center of any unclear touch point— whether we’re laughing at it or not—lies a real struggle; a wall of frustration too primal for cynicism to eradicate. I think we really want to have and make things … clear.

 

“The world is fuzzy sometimes, I get it,” you say.

“What’s the big deal? Why obsess over making things clear?” you ask?

 

Well, the world isn’t just fuzzy. It’s being disrupted constantly and with greater speed as time marches on. Political upheaval, shifting financial markets, rapid advances in technology and science, competing agendas among groups and businesses … all continue to trend upward in frequency and magnitude thanks in part to advances in communication infrastructures that speed up the deployment of data and disruptions. So “the big deal” of things unclear is made manifest by the reality that confusion today can compound exponentially tomorrow.

 

Source: IBM Big Data & Analytics Hub

 

When important communication efforts are unclear (or unclear by their absence), confusion happens and re-happens rapidly. Confusion costs us time; time is money; and money lost to confusion isn’t well spent. It’s not all that complicated a formula really, and it can seem inconsequential at first glance. Yet when you add it all up and really examine the details of the many unclear and/or inaccurate situations that trip us up in our daily routines, I think it’s pretty astounding how costly unclear can be. Just a quick glance at the problem of bad data can give a good sense of this. 3.1 trillion smackaroos is a pretty big consequence for things being wonky.

So maybe you have an important positive disruption to put in place, somewhere in the already disrupted world. Great. Breaking ground with a valuable new idea, product, or service is still what moving forward as a global community is all about. But know this, if your disruption isn’t surrounded with clear (and yes, accurate) communication the truth is that your disruption will probably be disrupted pretty quickly by confusion, apathy, or both on the part of your intended audience or customers. Your ship will be dragging anchors as soon as it sets sail.

 

How to make things clear (in a seriously compressed nutshell).

Despite the word “easy” being found in the definition of “clear,” making things clear when communicating can be anything but. For starters, there are the forces aligned against the efforts of clear communication (as touched on above). These forces show up throughout a project and threaten its success, so staying vigilant and alert against them is the starting stance for any effort to clearly communicate.

Additionally, in my experience, when we sit down with clients to begin to craft strategies there are often several points of tension between the known and the unknown, the clear and the unclear in what the desired goals and outcomes are for the effort at hand. Typically progress in communicating clearly is hindered right at the outset when clients have certain points they want to make but aren’t sure how to make those clear, or they haven’t answered the “Why?” question clearly as to what needs to be accomplished. You usually hear some of these words — antonyms of clear—in conversations as these points of tension arise:

uncertain, unsure, unsettled, up in the air, debatable, open to question, in doubt; doubtful, ambiguous, equivocal, indefinite, vague, mysterious, obscure, hazy, foggy, nebulous, informal, iffy

Those words usually involve variables and challenges the client is facing and tag the conceptual drag forces on the progress of communicating well. So how do we combat those forces? Specific tactics for that are nuanced and varied, but much of the battle to make things clear is found right there at the outset — in pure and simple observation and inquisitiveness.

Battling the drag forces of clear communication — whether it’s affecting a press release, web site, ad, info-graphic, SEO effort, UI design or a UX study — all begins with a commitment to see an unclear or potentially unclear thing for what it is, name it, and decide not to accept it without a fight. It’s not always possible to do this as a consumer, but when you’re in a maker role, you get to put your big person pants on and just say “No.” to unclear. You get to stare unclear beasts in the eyes, probe, ask hard questions of subject matter experts, isolate, immobilize and target the gremlins of unclear and thereby help bring order to chaos.

It’s also worth noting that things are not always clarified quickly. Sometimes months of effort and customized approaches are needed. But regardless of the time it takes, it’s incredibly fulfilling and extraordinarily important to make things clear — and you’ll likely find other clarity curmudgeons (I know of a few) who are ready to join in the fight.

 

“Take your time. Accuracy is a virtue.”   — Boba Fett, The Mandalorian Armor

 

So after seeing and targeting the unclear beasts … then what happens? Well, lots of things. But where to begin? As the composer John Cage has famously said, “Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis.” His advice: “Begin anywhere.”

But if you’re really stuck, a few potential make things clear kickoff action items might be:

  • Contain the complicated. Complexity and an abundance of detail will always be with us, but look for ways to put the simple communication up front, with drill-down information suppressed, but still available to your audience if they choose to seek those details out.
  • Ask yourself (in reference to a thing’s aesthetic) “What does this ‘say’ to the audience at first glance?” Record all the descriptive words that first come to mind as answers (good or bad). Ask others the same question and record those answers. Is what you’re trying to visually communicate quickly coming through? This is a simple technique to arm yourself with anecdotal, but valuable data in your quest to be clear in what you’re making.
  • Simplify simplify simplify. Do this with an image, type choice or messaging and content. This might kick off with accepting migrating visual trends, moving from the skeuomorphic to the flat. It might progress to paring down word count, or investing heavily in the content editing phase of a project before anything else takes place. You rarely want to go too far with simplification efforts that you land at under-informing (unless mystery is part of the desired result), but you do want to always make sure what you have in place is clear.

 

So without further ado, look around you. What you see is the unclear world as it sits right now. Go make it clear.

28
Mar

User Interface vs. Face-to-Face

Posted by: Brion Eriksen

face-user-face

Do you prefer Mr. Roboto for your customer service? I’m not completely sold.

In their 1983 single “Mr. Roboto,” the Chicago rock band Styx envisioned a campy dystopian future where robots substitute for manual labor and, incidentally, rock and roll is outlawed.

Well, 35 years later that once-critically-panned/now-guilty-pleasure hit seems to have been half-correct. “Robots” in the form of algorithm-driven streaming services are helping keep popular music alive, but automation is indeed also continuing to supplement, augment, and replace people and jobs.

In the three decades since that time, electronic and digital interfaces have been enabling unprecedented efficiency and convenience in customer service and manufacturing. For consumer transactions in particular, we’ve seen ATMs supplement bank tellers, kiosks augment airline agents and grocery clerks, and pay-at-the-pump systems completely replace gas station attendants.

E-commerce transactions have also, of course, allowed us to evade human contact with phone representatives, brick-and-mortar stores, and travel agents. Lately, some of these transactions have migrated to smartphones, where you can hail an Uber or unlock a Zipcar. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have also arrived as mostly in-the-home technologies for now, but along with chatbots they’ll widen the “net” further of things (through the “Internet of Things”) driven by artificial intelligence.

Up next: Restaurants

You may have noticed this trend at restaurants. Table-side digital kiosks are popping up at Olive Gardens and Applebees, and you can place your order on an iPad at the gate-side “Minnibar” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. These tools mainly assist the waitstaff and bartender with drink re-orders and payment processing. The human staff is still involved in placing your initial order, bringing your food and checking in on your satisfaction.

iPads augment customer service and the Minnibar
iPads augment customer service and the Minnibar

Arriving recently on the fast-casual restaurant scene is Eatsa, featuring virtually no waitstaff or counter help. Their (delicious-looking) quinoa bowls are prepared behind-the-scenes (by humans, we assume) based on your order from a digital screen, and delivered to you through a Star-Trekky portal window.

Credit: Business Insider
Credit: Business Insider

Politics intersects

President Trump’s original choice for Secretary of Labor raised eyebrows, partially because of his frank talk about work automation. Andy Puzder happens to be the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the holding company for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. In the past two years before his nomination, Puzder has written opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal making some interesting commentary and arguments about digital UI’s, AI and robots, and intersected them with wage costs and customer demand.

You should be able to read the piece as free content as a non-subscriber to WSJ; however you may require a subscription.

Fortune.com has a similar article on the topic that features Puzder and reflects many of his same thoughts.

Puzder’s nomination was eventually withdrawn due mostly to various other personal issues, but many members of Congress also questioned why an executive who touts replacing workers with robots—and, in conjunction with this thinking, questions raising the minimum wage—would be the right choice for Labor, and I agree. For the purpose of this essay, however, I think Puzder makes some interesting observations about consumer preferences, and speaks bluntly about doing the economic math.

Before I succumb further to the strong gravitational pull of the politics surrounding Mr. Puzder and the new Cabinet, I’ll remain focused on the picture he paints of customers preferring to transact with a kiosk instead of a human—and what that means.

I’m (usually) a people person

I usually prefer to interact with a human. I’m not one of those folks who Puzder describes in his article who line up at the digital screens while a lone remaining counter attendant waits, disengaged. If I encounter that scene, I’m making a beeline for the personal service. I scour the attended grocery check-out lanes for short lines before bailing out to my longtime pet peeve, the self-scanners.

My boys would often laugh at how frustrated I’d get when using the self-scan lane at the supermarket. Something would inevitably go wrong between the scanner and scale, the “help” light would begin blinking, the mechanical voice would call loud attention to my plight, and a helpful young steward would come over, swipe their employee card, and flush out the error. I’d suppress the urge to ask the innocent youngster “why do they even have these? They still need to pay you to constantly monitor them anyway!?”

I’ve noticed significant improvement in self-scan function recently, and my angst has subsided. Check-out attendants are still there to monitor security and provide help, which seems more complementary. It’s good to know that someone is there, but I no longer have this customer experience where I’m doing most of the work while someone is being paid to be on standby, ready to jump in and help just in case.

The same goes for kiosks in restaurants and bars. I’ve visited an Olive Garden and the aforementioned Minnibar, and found that the waitstaff and bartender needed to remain well-connected to the whole process even though I had to also fiddle with the iPad. They saved some time when I was ready to pay and leave, circumventing that moment where your companion polishes off her cocktail and says “are we ready to go?” and you reply “still waiting for the check,” or “just need to get my card back.” So that was nice. And at the airport I felt like the bartender would rather I just ignore the iPad, implying “it will be easier and better for both of us.” Overall the joint digital-human customer service partnerships didn’t seem to be gelling quite yet.

Putting customers first

Looking at Puzder’s comments and reflecting on my experiences, I can recognize that technology-driven customer service is continuing to find its footing while it continuously evolves. Electronic and digital transaction interfaces take steps and leaps forward, and then when a brand-new paradigm is injected into the ecosystem, things seem to take a small step back. Everything is hurtling forward at breakneck speed and sometimes customer service takes a back seat to the bottom line (and people’s jobs sometimes get caught in the crossfire).

Personally, I like the idea of taking a bit more care to ensure that we’re always putting customers first before sacrificing user experience for profit margins through the narrow mechanism of reducing purely for the sake of labor costs, which is always a faulty equation. Profits are of course, in the most basic terms, the difference between your revenues and expenses. But value is also a component of profits. We should always think about how digital interfaces and other advancements like artificial intelligence and virtual reality enhance the value a customer places on the experience. What not only brings customers in the door, but keeps them coming back?

  • Are customers in a hurry? If they have no use or need for human interaction, an all-digital, self-serve approach will be preferable and we’ll see more on-the-go “giant vending machines” like Eatsa, for example, for a quick-grab before or during the work day. Carl’s Jr.’s CEO seems to have his eye on this approach as well.
  • Do customers want to be attended to? This is where kiosks in sit-down restaurants can get a little awkward. Does the digital screen sacrifice a desired personal touch for fewer waitstaff and a bit more order accuracy? As this approach matures, kiosks, tablets and waiters should continue to have a more seamless role in providing service where everyone’s working together.
  • In the most posh, upper-scale restaurants, replacing a knowledgeable and highly attentive waiter with a digital kiosk would be out of place, but any restaurant—from fast food to fine dining—could benefit from a more streamlined digital payment system. Think checking out at the Apple Store, where there are no registers to speak of. I don’t know what they do if you want to pay in cash.
  • Starbucks customers leverage their app and a “membership” to easily order-ahead so that they can just walk into the store, grab their drink and go with minimal waiting-around friction. Could some food services go all the way with the “Just Walk Out” technology of Amazon Go? Probably! Eatsa could go that route pretty easily, it seems.

Digital technologies are amazing and have improved the quality of life in myriad ways, from safety to efficiency to pure fun and enjoyment. The possibilities are endless and new transaction models are coming online all the time. So, without a doubt there is a place in just about every industry for exciting enhancements. But we should always ask the two-part question:

  • First, are we replacing too much human interaction with the customer?
  • And are we replacing human interaction purely to save labor costs?

The optimal experience

As the owner of a digital agency, one would think that I’d be excited about all the opportunities out there for our skill sets to design interfaces. Of course — if that’s the best user experience. I am more concerned about the overall experience, not just what happens on a screen. If a customer will receive the maximum value from your product by whizzing through an all-screen/zero-human user flow, I’m thrilled to design that. But first we need to begin by looking at the entire transaction process holistically. It’s imperative that business leverage technology as best they can, but companies and brands should examine specifically how technology, their people, and their customers can work together.

The aforementioned Starbucks and Apple Store experiences are good examples. Technology helps streamline the transaction process but you still have access to a human being to get your specialty latte just right or show you how to switch your iPhone 7 from defaulting to taking photos in Live mode.

In those restaurants with table-top kiosks, those could be used in conjunction with a tablet that the waiter carries, helping ensure order accuracy but also helping with order customization. Waiters could wait on more tables and maintain a higher level of attentiveness when the tablet augments the process of notifying when food is ready to be served, drink refills and re-ordering, up-selling, and handling most of the payment transaction process.

A restaurant that runs at optimal efficiency prevents many of the factors that lead to bad customer experiences: Incorrect orders, and long wait times to get a table and then to get served and cashed out. Instead, tables turn over faster, an extra drink or two is ordered, perhaps even that elusive dessert up-sell. Customers may be willing to absorb slightly higher pricing at such an establishment, and gratuities may not take a hit despite the service being assisted by the kiosk. Finally, all of this may allow for some trimming of labor costs but fall well short of a staffing overhaul.

One of many examples

The Puzder nomination and Eatsa stories have me more fixated on restaurants, but there are many more examples of fascinating intersections between customer service and ever-burgeoning technologies. Everyone talks about what will be the next AirBnB or Uber, and soon “the next Eatsa” may be invoked.

One of my favorite follows on Medium, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly publishing fame) has a great post as part of his “WTF: What’s The Future?” series: “Don’t Replace People. Augment Them.” I think that’s where I’m going with my thoughts above on my Utopian restaurant (hey … how does “Café Utopia” sound?)

I still value human interaction, and I like O’Reilly’s idea on having the imagination to think beyond “what jobs can we replace with machines?” I’ll trade a little extra time for getting personal attention, even if I barely have the time. But I like that I’m getting the personal touch at my favorite stops these days alongside some slick digital tools—far fewer pens that don’t work, trying to sign curled-up paper receipts; and not so many paper rewards punch cards that get forgotten then need to be “combined.”

Now if only everyone could get on the same page when it comes to using that chip card slot or not. Seeing the makeshift “NO CHIP!” cardboard stuffed into the slot sets all this cool tech stuff back a few years doesn’t it? Maybe that will be a topic for a follow-up post.

Or, driverless vehicles 😉

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