Current Thinking

Mac to the Future. Happy 30th!



Broke out my collection this weekend to have some fun with MacPaint again. It was love at first sight then, and still is today.

here’s what you see pictured:

Mac 512k (1985)
ImageWriter printer
Apple 800k External Floppy Drive
Apple 300 Baud Modem
Complete manuals, cassettes
Original System Disk, MacPaint, MacWrite
MacPaint/MacWrite box and disks
dozens of misc 400k and 800k floppies
“Test Drive a Mac” carrying case

(All in working order :-)

So happy this all stills works after 30 years.

Happy Birthday Mac!

Current Thinking

Everything you know about Scale & Complexity is wrong



Over the last three years, I’ve had a chance to dig into designing for the extreme scale and complexity of the modern datacenter.

It’s been a great education in how to communicate clearly when there are severe consequences to everyday decisions. Because the modern datacenter powers the very core of our digital existence, it needs to absorb failure and keep ticking every second of every day, or face the wrath of millions (and much worse). Running some of the biggest services on the planet does in fact require massive scale and complexity of infrastructure – there’s no simplifying this situation away. And it will continue to grow every year for the foreseeable future.

While exploring the best ways for people to understand, take action and communicate what’s key to them at the moment in the datacenter, some important (but non-obvious) insights become quite clear. Turns out many of the prevailing thoughts in this field are wrongheaded, and it appears we have been going about this all wrong for a long, long time.


is not about numbers. It’s about fear.”

Extreme scale, or any amount of scale for that matter, cannot be addressed by putting more things on the screen. That doesn’t fix anything. When designing for understanding, it’s always a challenging task to compare quantities or depict large numbers to elicit the right response or get the importance across. But, trying to scare people into recognizing how gigantic something is by using various visual techniques rather than focusing on relieving the person’s fear of being crushed by the shear number of things to be managed is not helpful. So much effort is spent adding zeros and making typography heavier that we miss the human part of all this – how does this relate to what I understand and know how to deal with? Can I put this into perspective?

ANTIDOTE? Use compact and meaningful visual representations that leverage well understood metrics, rather than adding zeros.


cannot be simplified, only clarified or illuminated.”

Complexity is so often cast as evil or undesirable by the Simplification Police that we sometimes forget its quite real, necessary and even unavoidable in many situations and environments. You cannot hide the intricate workings or obtuse relationships in a system and expect someone to fully grasp the gravity of decisions made upon it. We are brainwashing ourselves into thinking that anything can and should be simplified, which is true of many interactions, depictions and scenarios – but not all.

In fact, we do the biggest disservice there is when we cloak and discard important aspects of non-trivial systems or situations. Who wants to be in the dark for the sake of being spoonfed? Conversely, this doesn’t mean we should or would show every aspect of every object, person and process. But, it does mean we all need to recognize that complexity is not a bad thing, it just is a part of our world and needs to be clarified for people to make better decisions.

ANTIDOTE? Relay the key aspects and attributes without dumbing down the content.


cannot be expressed as a spilled box of spaghetti.”

The overall approach to showing complex relationships has historically been to try to depict every element of a set in an effort to be correct. Good thought, but terrible consequences for understanding and usability for non-trivial numbers of objects. Far better to realize that rendering a diagram that looks like someone dumped a box of spaghetti on the floor isn’t going to help anyone.

This pursuit of correctness makes things so difficult to understand in practice, it lengthens time on task. Worse yet, making that visual spaghetti look “appealing” adversely affects things by distracting us from getting to clarity. We need to focus on significance of related elements without being overwhelmed by the connections themselves, which is so often the case.

ANTIDOTE? Reduce the visual noise by using techniques that summarize without misleading.



From the above insights you can see we have alot to reconsider, including an re-examination of our approach to depicting and communicating Scale, Complexity and Relationships in the modern datacenter.

I’d bet some or all of the approaches we’ve gotten wrong or outgrown also apply to your area of expertise and work.

Lots more to say about this topic.
Stay tuned. Or better yet, let’s talk.



Current Thinking

Dashboard Clarity

Dashboard Clarity

Think I took this photo inside MoMA in New York City, perhaps part of an exhibit on modern technology. To me, it captures perfectly everything that’s right and wrong about being clear in “Dashboards” that we present for business intelligence, operations or troubleshooting. This is exactly what real people ask us to do – just show them what’s important. Nothing more, nothing less. Bold and decisive. Straightforward. Utilitarian. Beautiful.

In some ways, this would have been the perfect dashboard to monitor and take action on many of the projects I’ve worked on.

Too simple?
Too limited?
Too crude?

Think again…

Current Thinking

What’s top of mind for me?

  • Totally blown away by the creativity at INST-INT conf in Minneapolis
  • My next talk is at PDX Data Visualization on Wed 10/1 in Portland
  • Great conversations with Kim, Dino, and Melissa of Periscopic in Portland
  • Presented to my friends at Waggener Edstrom in Portland last week
  • Had a great time showing Alberto Cairo and Jon Schwabish around MSFT
  • Working on posting the “Smart Information” trilogy talks
Current Thinking

Just say NO… to Unicorns.

artwork: Lily Pell


First, let me say that I like unicorns as much as the next person.

But, I only like them in children’s storybooks and movies… never in Design reviews. The unicorns I love to see are playful, magical beings that are clearly not real. They do no harm (generally) and evoke good feelings in the people that see them.

What’s not to love about a unicorn?

Now, contrast that with the reaction of a PM or Dev seeing a unicorn in a Design review. Just the opposite. “That’s a nice idea, but come on – it can’t be real. Why did you think that was possible? Let’s get real.”

Am I right?



One dead giveaway of a unicorn is that it evokes a lot of “Oh! that’s cool! But, wait…” reactions. And the reason that “but” comes in is generally because all or part of what you’ve done is NOT PLAUSIBLE. The unicorn is easy to spot in those cases. There’s something about it that is technically impossible with today’s thinking or technology. Or in some cases, there’s a business reason people will see as a non-starter. I generally see most people agreeing on when something is plausible or not, even though we all have different experiences and areas of expertise. Plausibility is a bit easier to judge than good or bad art.

Another way to spot a unicorn is when the people you show it to immediately start figuring out how to discredit it instead of how to build it. Great ideas that are hard to do will evoke an excitement about the challenge and problem solving aspects. Great ideas that are unicorns will find themselves under attack from non-believers almost immediately.



So, does that mean Designers should stop dreaming big and pushing for true innovation?  NO!

But, we do have to understand the difference between a vision of what’s possible, achievable innovation and what’s not realistic at all.

It starts with an understanding of the customer, marketplace, domain, existing products and basic familiarity with the technologies. From there, we can project forward in a realistic way while still bringing innovation to bear on the opportunities and challenges.

True Innovation is the anti-Unicorn.

It immediately motivates people to try harder to achieve.
What’s True Innovation? a story for another day.

In the meantime…

Just say no to Unicorns.
Say yes to Innovation.

Current Thinking

Design Matters – F1 steering wheels


Being a huge Formula 1 fan, I can’t help but notice the unbelievably expensive high technology used in modern racing cars. Every piece of the car has been specially designed and hand crafted to be used at the absolute limit of performance during a grand prix.

Even one of the oldest and most basic components found in any motorcar has been completely redesigned into a marvel of modern engineering. The steering wheel on a modern F1 car is study in hi tech complexity despite being the primary means of communicating with a car going over 200 MPH. Have to wonder what those engineers were thinking.

I won’t bore you with the details of all the functions, but it’s easy to see from these images that a distinct cultural difference exists in a very obvious way for the factory teams that design and build F1 cars.


BMW ( German ) = function over form




Ferrari ( Italian ) = style + form + function


The Ferrari wheel appears to utilize color and shape to add real value to the functional elements of the wheel itself, where the BMW wheel appears to be built for ultimate customization, perhaps at the expense of usability.

I’m not an F1 driver, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing the Ferrari drivers got the hang of their wheels quicker and has more confidence adjusting settings while screaming down the backstraight.

What do you think?


Current Thinking

People, not “Users”



I try to never call people “users” when I’m at work.You shouldn’t either.


The word “users” brings with it the image of a faceless non-human who operates the software you design and build. We assign them personas or attributes, and even picture them as real people sometimes, but they are always referred to as users – not people. I find that an unsettling practice, and one that has to end.

The humans that use our software are people, not users.

They have lives, concerns, hopes, tragedy, joy and everything in-between. To call them users because they use software loses sight of their humanity – flawed, random and chaotic as it may be. They will never do what you want them to do, but to call them users implies they are sheep who will comply with your intended usage patterns.

Life is messy. People are messy. They couldn’t be more interesting.
Users are faceless sheep who follow.

Quit calling them Users for a day.
See if it sticks.

Call them People, because that’s what we are.


Current Thinking

Being done.


Designers have a bigger problem being done than most.


Coming to the end of sprint or cycle is a joyous occasion for most of the feature team typically, but I’ve found it more difficult for Designers. We as a discipline are driven to get things right and apply our passion to making it so. That makes being done a challenge sometimes. The finality of it is visceral to some.

“Shipping is deciding. Shipping is choosing. Shipping is saying NO.”

We’ve all heard these statements in triage and the war room. It’s a natural and expected outcome of the closing phase in every project.

Can we as Designers be OK with being done? It not, we risk distracting and disrupting the rest of our teams from doing what they need to do – be done. Does that mean we turn a blind eye to the problems we still see? No. But, we need to deal with them differently in the final phase of project, and perhaps more importantly we must make peace with the thousands of decisions that have lead up to this point.

We often see the imperfections in our work and not the beauty or advancement that is so clear to the rest of the world.

Time to put the pen down and appreciate what you’ve accomplished.