Generating Ideas | Your Versus My in User Interfaces

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 19, 2009

This time, we’ll discuss two topics in Ask UXmatters:

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Generating Ideas

Q: What techniques are best for generating ideas? What books or online articles give the best examples of how to use these techniques?—from a UXmatters reader

The following experts have contributed answers to this question:

  • Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident; UXmatters columnist
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Co-founder and Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Michael Griffith—Group Creative Director at imc2
  • David Malouf—Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design; Founder and former Vice President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal Usability Consultant at Apogee Usability Asia; Founding Member and President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch

Group Brainstorming

“You might be surprised by how good we all are at generating ideas,” says Daniel. “In my experience, three elements can help you generate ideas:

  1. providing stimuli—Something to get people thinking outside their normal thought patterns—for example:
    • pictures
    • watching a film or video clip
    • going for a walk and asking people to observe and find stuff as they walk
    • asking people to draw
    • going outside—or least leaving the office environment
    • playing with a toy or game
    • listening to an inspiring presenter on a relevant topic
    • doing a group activity or some improvisation

Pick your own creative stimulus. What activity would inspire you and evoke emotion? What are your ideas?

  1. creating a conducive environment and facilitating discussion—Create or find an environment that generates trust among people. The more relaxed people feel, the better they are at coming up with ideas. A good facilitator can both help to create a conducive environment and form teams that let people perform at their best and come up with great ideas. It’s usually the facilitator’s role to drive the grouping of related ideas and map ideas to strategies and implementation plans.
  2. making it okay to fail and setting ground rules—This involves a mix of the first two elements, plus telling people that ‘all ideas are welcome, and there are no bad ideas’ lets people come up with ideas that stretch the domain you are working in. Sometimes you need to go outside your framework to find the best ideas. You should not let your current domain restrict you.

“Good luck! What ideas have you come up with so far after reading this? For other perspectives on generating ideas, you may enjoy reading these articles:

Brainstorming On Your Own

I am a big fan of brainstorming. First, I write goals on a piece of paper. Then I write down as many details as possible—for example, who are the users, in what context would they use a product, how much knowledge would they have, what is the users’ physical environment, who would evaluate a product, and what are their measures of success? I write down every detail I can think of—even if it seems insignificant at the time. This usually takes awhile, so afterward, I get up and walk around for a few minutes. Then I look at some beautiful books that are appropriate to the task at hand. For example, if I need to organize data, I’ll look at one or more of Edward Tufte’s amazing books or the clever visualizations shown in the proceedings of the Graph Drawing or CHI conferences.

Next, I review my goals and details, then write down everything else that comes to mind. Again, I capture every detail, even if it seems insignificant. This step can take quite a bit of time. Immediately afterward, I go back and put stars next to the ideas that stand out. After a break, I go back, review everything, and circle the ideas that seem best. If no idea provides a complete solution, I evaluate what is missing, add more to my details list, and start brainstorming again. I also enjoy brainstorming in a group with a whiteboard. This technique leads to many ideas, however, determining what is the best solution among them takes very focused work. The good ideas must stand up to rigorous testing and evaluation to be sure they are viable.

If I want to come up with a neat idea first, then find an application for it later, I love to watch people—at the coffee shop, in stores, or in the park. What are they doing? Are they multitasking? Do they use cool gadgets? What seems to frustrate them? What do they seem to be excited about? I also study what people are writing in their books, articles, blogs, and even comments about online articles. I look at something inspirational like a good book, turn on some great music, and just write down whatever comes to mind.


“For me, the best means of generating ideas is sketching,” says Dave. “Sketching is a long-proven design tool for purposeful, non-linear, associative thinking that generates accidents of serendipity. A great UX book on the topic of sketching is Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experience. At this point, it is the only book on my must-read list for UX designers.

“Sketching is not just drawing. It is done with the intention of creating a non-evaluative space where ideas are given multilateral freedom to be expressed, then combined, and expanded upon. Drawing in rough lines just happens to be one of the most expedient ways of sketching. There are three rules for doing sketching appropriately:

  1. Sketches need to be and look rough.
  2. They have to be done in multiples. You can’t just do one sketch.
  3. They have to be presented as clearly disposable.

“For sketching to work as an idea-generating tool, all three of these rules must lead all stakeholders toward the following necessary conclusion: That the result is asking a question instead of making a statement. That it is a suggestion instead of a directive.

“For more on sketching, look up a ton of resources on the topic in the industrial design community.”

“Whether you want to come up with design ideas for your current project or capture your own random, creative outpourings in an idea notebook that may provide inspiration for future projects, sketching is a great way of quickly expressing your ideas,” suggests Pabini. “When you’re discussing features or design ideas with team members with whom you work collaboratively, sketching lets you quickly communicate possible solutions, discuss them, and refine them. Sketching is an evolutionary process.”

Visual Thinking and Forced Associations

Michael Griffith describes his different ways of stimulating creativity: “I am a visual thinker, so doing image searches on relevant topics lets me think of things in different ways. For example, if I have a half-baked concept involving magnetism, a quick Google image search on magnets expands my thinking beyond the traditional horseshoe magnet and gets me thinking about the Earth’s magnetic poles or a refrigerator magnet. Two leaps I would not have been able to make so quickly on my own.

“I also do forced association exercises. Take two seemingly unconnected ideas and mash them together. What would you get if you mixed GPS technology and a pizza box? Pizza order tracking!

”Another approach is to break a topic or problem into smaller pieces. For example, rather than brainstorming a big question like What metaphor would help users understand how to use this music player?, ask multiple, smaller questions that are easier to answer like How do people listen to music?, Where do people listen to music?, and How do you feel when listening to music? Sometimes the smaller answers evolve into bigger ideas.”

The Elusive Muse and Exposure to New Ideas

“I’m not sure you can really formalize the idea-generation process into a set of techniques!” argues Peter. “A lot of creative people expose themselves to as many new experiences as possible, then spend time reflecting on their experiences. Of these two elements of creative thinking, active reflection is the more powerful. Think about what would happen if something were different. How would this affect the other elements in a scenario?”

“Whenever I have any free time, I read and explore the Web—and not just books and articles about design. Reading about new technologies may stimulate creative product ideas,” says Pabini. “Often, my most fruitful explorations involve looking at competitive Web sites or reviews of new Web sites, which lets me understand their business strategies, branding, and design approaches. Evaluating their features and design concepts offers two possibilities for expanding my design horizons:

  1. When I see something really great, that expands my knowledge of current best practices—whether specific to a particular product domain or generally applicable design concepts.
  2. If I see an attempt at innovation that fails or falls short of perfection, but nevertheless has merit, it often sparks my creativity. I’ll immediately try to conceive of a better approach that’s inspired by what I see, but solves its problems and overcomes its deficiencies. That’s how best practices for design evolve.

“I get a lot of my best ideas during discussions about problems that need solutions with product managers or developers with whom I’m collaborating. When I get a design idea for a user interface, I like to run through different usage scenarios to see whether the idea holds up. I like getting immediate feedback from respected teammates—even if it’s critical—so I can quickly refine my ideas while I’m still at the sketching stage. Taking this kind of iterative design approach saves a lot of time, and it stimulates my creativity.

“When working on product strategies or detailed design solutions, my most inspired ideas tend to come to me when I’ve just woken up or am in the shower. A relaxed mind is a creative mind. Of course, I’ve worked hard to lay the groundwork for these creative inspirations, but it helps to set a project aside for awhile and let my intuitive mind solve tough design problems.”

Wording in User Interfaces: First Person or Second Person?

Q: I have been wondering for some time how wording affects directives in user interfaces. Essentially, does it make a difference to say Your account versus My account in an interface? When people fill out a question on a form asking for their email address, does it make a difference whether it says Your email address or My email address? From my own perspective, it seems using your is like a two-sided conversation with the interface, whereas using my is putting the interface in the user’s perspective. Very curious to hear your thoughts on this.—from Josh Pyles

The following experts have contributed answers to this question:

  • Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident; UXmatters columnist
  • Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Co-founder and Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Colleen Jones—Partner and Interactive Experience and Communication Consultant at threebrick; UXmatters columnist
  • David Malouf—Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design; Founder and former Vice President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)

Your, My, or Neither?

“I think you’ve expressed very well what the essential difference is between these two wordings,” replies Pabini. “In a form, it’s generally not necessary to label a box Your email address. Email address is usually sufficient, and conciseness is important in labeling. However, I have encountered situations in which it was necessary to distinguish between a user’s email address and another email address. For complete clarity in such cases, it’s best to say Your email address. A form essentially represents a dialogue with a user, so in a sense, you’re paraphrasing this question: Would you please provide your email address?

“Of course, as with most design issues, the best solutions depend on who your users are and their current context. Adding your to a label can sometimes give a bit more clarity and, therefore, some comfort to novice users, so it might be more appropriate on a Sign Up page than on a My Account page. Plus, you want your Sign Up page to have a friendly tone and using your and you in your text lends that tone.

“Similarly, it’s often unnecessary to qualify a label with my. However, using my in a label can add clarity when a user is viewing existing information in a context in which either of these conditions exists:

  • It is important users understand they are viewing their own information—a My Account link on PayPal or another online banking site provides a good example.
  • Users need to be able to distinguish their own information from that of others—for example, Edit My Profile on LinkedIn.

“Taking your audience’s point of view can be persuasive, and adding my to a label can lend a hint of personalization to an object in a user interface. This can be important on a shared computer, but with today’s inexpensive computers, it’s become less common for people to share computers with others—at least in the developed world.”

Peter warns, “Personalization can be a real bag of worms, and there is anecdotal evidence that it depends on your audience! For example, back when Windows 95 was released, users could easily change My computer to something more personal. Apple users had been able to do this for many years, and many of them did name their computers. But few Windows users took the opportunity to do this, suggesting that they saw the computer as more of a tool than something with which they wanted to have a personalized relationship.

“Including terms like my and your takes up space on the screen, without adding to the users’ knowledge of what they can do. Personally, I tend to avoid these terms and keep the focus tightly on the key information for the user, reducing the amount of text they need to read. Perhaps we have now reached a stage, when the computer is such an integral part of our lives, we no longer need to clarify that what someone is looking at on the screen is personal to them?”

Dave agrees, “I try to totally stay away from either my or your—especially if it is just an email address. If you must, you should use your, because the system is speaking to the user. Using my implies that the system wants its data.”

Mike gives an example he encountered in the real world: “I had a similar dilemma last year when a waitress gave me two checks, and at the bottom of one was printed Your copy and My copy on the other. If I read them using her voice, My copy would be the one to sign and leave. If, however, I read them in my voice, I would keep My copy and sign Your copy.

“If a user has any interaction in which he or she customizes or personalizes a page, My page makes sense,” continues Mike. “If a page is a unilateral presentation to a user, Your page would be more reasonable. I think My page is more prevalent, and I doubt many users would be confused by that usage. But if you have a user’s name, go with the unambiguous Mike’s page.”

Two Perspectives: Usability and Rhetoric

“I would like to answer your question from two perspectives: usability and rhetoric,” replies Colleen. “From a usability perspective, I have not seen much difference in task performance based on choosing your or my modifiers. We ran into this exact question while redesigning the Cingular Service Summary. I’ve also run into it with account management applications. In many rounds of usability testing, I have not seen either wording cause a problem, as long as it is consistent. I consequently decided that, for usability, the choice does not matter as much as using whatever word you choose consistently. Also, in the context of a form, repeating my and your in each field label probably is not necessary if the overall form title—or form section title—includes the modifier.

“From a rhetorical perspective, I like including your or my modifiers for personal information to create a friendly tone. I also applaud you for noticing the nuance of what writers call point of view, specifically first person versus second person. I have used both approaches. I think you’re headed in the right direction with the conversational second person for four reasons:

  1. You can keep the labels consistent with more ease. If you label something My Account, then include instructions within the page, you’ll have to think about when to use my and your. In my opinion, your fits more naturally in most user interface instructions, which use an imperative sentence structure. This sentence structure implies you as the subject—for example, Add your address.
  2. You avoid the semblance of inconsistency or awkwardness. Even though labeling information My Account and including an instruction that uses your is fine, people can interpret it as incorrect or awkward, which could cause confusion or weaken credibility.
  3. You clarify when a user interface or company is talking about itself and when it is talking to the user. If an application is part of a Web site that also includes information about a company in the first person point of view—such as About Us, using Your Account keeps the distinction between company and user clear.
  4. You do not risk being cheeky. This point is subtle and depends on the context—such as the brand. I raise it, because user interface design is getting sophisticated in the realm of emotion. If a user interface uses first person—such as my—it is essentially speaking for the user. If not used judiciously, first person could come across as presumptuous. Two major exceptions, of course, are the Apple line of products whose names begin with i—for example, iPhone, iPod, and iTunes—and the Wii—a play on we. The first person seems to resonate with the strong emotional connection people have to these products.”

Pabini thinks “Colleen’s last point shows there is a good case for using my in personalized applications and products, especially those with user-generated content. People do make strong emotional connections with such products, which truly become their own. I’m not at all concerned about people becoming confused by the usage of both my and your in the same user interface—any more than they have difficulty understanding them in spoken or written language—so long as they’re used consistently and correctly. For example, the consistent use of second person is indeed essential when providing instructions to users, whether in instructional text in a user interface, contextual user assistance, or Help.” 

Other Ask UXmatters Columns on Similar Topics

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Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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