6 ways to learn languages faster

It's widely agreed that the best way to learn a langauge is to live in an area where it is spoken natively – easy when you're living abroad, or have the means to do so later in life. But if, for now, circimstances keep you at home, there are some simple ways you can learn a language faster. Here are six that I've found helpful.

Change your device's default language. This is a free and easy way to constantly expose yourself to a different language. You use your smartphone many times throughout the day for various tasks. You'll quickly pick up new vocabulary by mapping words and phrases in the UI back to your native language. For text that isn't part of the UI, you can infer meaning based context. If you get more brave, change your desktop OS's language.

Most apps will work gracefully in many languages. Here's what Spotify looks like en español.

Practice at ethnic restaurants. This may be more difficult where you live, but in New York it is easy. Try to order and converse with the restaurant's staff that speaks the language natively. They'll be delighted you're making an effort to learn and are almost always helpful and accommodating.

Use Duolingo. Perfect for your morning commute or lunch break, Duolingo is a simple mobile app to practice phrases, vocabulary, grammer, writing and even speaking.

Turn on video subtitles. Watch movies and shows on Netflix with language subtitles turned on. If the language you're learning isn't offered on Netflix or other services (and even if it is), watch TED Talks with subtitles on. TED Talks are translated into over 100 languages by over 17,000 volunteer translators (there have been 60,000 translations so far, and more are added every day). Here's a bunch of talks in French, Arabic, and Thai. There's even a couple in Latgalian and Tatar.

Hang out with other students and native speakers. Take a class in your city. Find others learning the same language on Meetup. Date a native speaker (of course not by intention, only as a bonus).

Write something every day. Keep a journal and try to write what you did that day in the new language. To do this I use Day One, a really well designed app for journaling. Over time you can see yourself getting better and writing more complex things.

A tall tale of empathy and UX

When I fly, I'm seated in economy class with the rest of the proletariate. I'm also tall, about 6'3" / 190cm. That makes things more difficult. Sometimes a lot more, like on Thai Airways. So when I see a child sitting a little too comfortably in first class, I can't help but roll my eyes a bit. I don't react necessarily to the privileged mode of travel, but rather all that space being utterly wasted when I know I'm about to experience hours of uncomfortable confinement. I do my best to dismiss the moment, and shuffle toward the back of the plane with the other commoners.

The other night I was at a sold out show at Webster Hall here in New York. Here's what it looked like from my vantage point.

Tycho makes the kind of music that you definitely feel, but don't jump and dance hysterically to. So sometimes I just shut my eyes and experience their sound that way.

After doing that for a while, something occurred to me which made me laugh in irony. But before I tell you why, have a look at what the show looked like for two friends I was with (they're around 5'2" / 157cm tall).

I chuckled, because I was now that kid in the first class seat. I was totally wasting the viewpoint my height provided me, intentionally. And in the presence of those much less advantaged. And where the coddled kid in first class was enough to induce an eye roll, what I was doing was an outright transgression – because it was a choice. Experiencing both sides of a situation of not using what you're given was instructive to me.

In the UX field we talk about a lot of things. Tools, processes, research, design, etc. But it's easy to forget that a lot of those things are supposed to be ways of finding, feeling, and fixing friction and pain points of the people you're trying to serve. Recognizing moments when you feel as others do are good reminders that all the work we do – no matter what our specialties, strengths, or backgrounds might be – has a common throughline: Empathy.

What UX Isn't

I'm pretty sure I've seen enough articles and posts about what people think UX is. It's pretty scattered out there. I'm not sure I have anything new to offer from that angle. But I do have an opinion on what I think UX isn't. We should let go of the idea of UX as deliverables. Too often I see UX put in the deliverables context. At that moment it becomes about things -- things like designs, workflows, user personas, A/B tests -- when it's really about systems. Think in terms of systems and I think you'll be ahead of everyone else.

I'll get back to systems in a moment, but first this question: How far back to you have to think to remember (and experiences form memories) a time when a web app you were using sucked because it performed so poorly you just gave up on it? For me, it was this morning. Or how about this: Have you ever used a product that had a polished aesthetic, but had language and copy that just didn't speak to you, felt off-tone, didn't help guide you (or even veered you off course)?

Engineers (performance) and copywriters (tone and language) are "experience designers" too, because they're part of a system. They each have the power to spoil an otherwise positive experience. The same goes for visual designers, information architects, etc. A "user experience" designer can't own all of these pieces. Their job is to see, from a user advocate's vantage point, how these components can together form the experiences you want people to have.

UX design is systems design from a place of empathy.

The Delight Layer of UX

Consider for a minute the 'home' and 'compose new tweet' buttons in Twitter's new app(s).

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There's something more substantive going on here than just detailed visual design. The birdhouse and quill raise those standard metaphors to a level that takes into account the ethos of the product itself. They're right in what I think of as the delight layer of UX. It's the stuff that has little to no effect on utility, but enriches the app in a way that wouldn't quite work with any other product.

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In other words, this layer doesn't necessarily make the product any easier to use – but it contains cues, markers and behaviors that are almost intangible, yet endow the product with unique experiential qualities.

I'll leave the rest of the app for others to review/criticize/praise, but in my mind this is a brilliant, nontrivial touch.

Web Directions South

Some of the most brilliant thinkers and doers from around the world convened in Sydney in October for Web Directions South -- Australia's blue-chip web conference. Four tracks (Design, Dev, Big Picture and W3C) offered a broad range of valuable talks for the attendees. It's hard to identify my most memorable takeaways because there are so many, but that won't stop me from trying. Here are but a few... **The venue**, located in Sydney's beautiful Darling Harbour, was perfect for the event. Spacious, elegant, and near the heart of the city, the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre offered every amenity a presenter and attendee could ask for.

**The audience** was lively, engaged, and eager to absorb what every presenter had to offer. It was hard not to feel the social energy.

**Rahul Sen** gave an amazing talk on what he called the Interaction Design Bauhaus. Rahul drew several insightful comparisons to the early 20th century Bauhaus movement and present day interaction design. Our presentations had some overlapping themes which we briefly discussed beforehand. If my talk focused more on interaction design at a micro level, Rahul's macro perspective turned out to be a brilliant compliment.

**Christopher Giffard**'s talk on captioning and timed metadata had me very excited about what's emerging with HTML5 video. I can envision all kinds of ways to use the techniques and formats he presented.

**Stubbornella** is someone to follow to keep current on emerging CSS techniques and best practices. Her talk, CSS Power Tools, was dense with valuable information.

**The Lanyrd Story** was a honest and delightful account of how Natalie Downe's and Simon Willison's Y Combinator backed idea became reality, all starting their honeymoon in Africa.

Big thanks to John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin for a wonderful job in organizing a world class event.

Why I'm not a UX Designer (and neither are you)

I'm not a User Experience Designer. And neither are you. What? How would you know what I am or am not?

I don't for sure. But give me a chance to back it up. In order to make such a claim I need to establish what I mean by the term *user experience*. To do that, let's roll back to 1995. Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio is the number one hit song and Don Norman publishes a SIGCHI proceedings paper, in which he writes…

In this organizational overview we cover some of the critical aspects of human interface research and application at Apple or, as we prefer to call it, the "User Experience."

And there it appears (emphasis by me). The first occurence, it seems, of that compound noun 'user experience.' Norman coined the term to encompass a range of elements from a systems perspective.

He explained the term further in an email to Peter Merholz a few years later, stating "I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose it’s meaning."

It's in this broad sense, one that reaches across all aspects of the human-product relationship, that 'user experience' entered our vocabulary.

As Marc Hassenzahl reminds us, if a product's purpose and function is the 'what' then the experience created through our relationship with it is the 'how' and 'why'. We're actually quite good at mastering the 'what' and to a large degree the 'how' of product design. We can invent things that help us accomplish tasks and solve problems that we once only dreamed about. But when we talk of experience, the 'what' and 'how' of design are the means, not the end according to Norman. Ultimately, product experiences emerge in the form of narratives that describe how they enhance our lives. And just like traditional stories, we tell them to others.

What does 'user experience' mean today?

UX itself still retains its original meaning in some circles, but has been used more and more frequently as a surrogate for more specific domains such as interaction design, visual design, or usability. Some professionals who've been perfectly satisfied calling themselves web|product|interaction|app|etc designers (or just designers) now feel an urge to adopt this more loftier sounding 'user experience' prefix. Perhaps it's seen as something one graduates into if they've been designing long enough. Or maybe it comes from a fear of being perceived as lagging behind forward edge thinking in their industry. Whatever the motivation, it's hard to argue that the term hasn't become diluted among a broad range of practitioners.

Peter Merholz interviewed Norman a decade after their initial correspondence in which Don reflects once again on the term he helped popularize:

Yes, user experience, human centered design, usability; all those things, even affordances. They just sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about.

Can you sense a little disappointment there? I think it comes from a growing disregard for the systems nature of product design. What's taken hold is this notion that because a user's experience with a product is influenced by that product's design, the experience as a whole can therefore be designed.

This is false. What is actually being designed is a support system to facilitate the formation of user experiences.

Design as a support system

In a comment on Marc Hassenzahl's thoughts on UX, Norman explains where experiences ultimately come into being:

To use another design term: we can design in the affordances of experiences, but in the end it is up to the people who use our products to have the experiences.

Put another way, we can use what we know about our own brains to create a framework that guides users toward having the experiences we'd like them to have, but it's up to them to actualize them. We have full control over things like objectives, features, interaction design (i.e. one can make a user complete a process in a certain way), information structure, UI design, visual design, and written language. But even if you control all of those things yourself, you still can't say that the system will result in a predestined experience.

The products we create are systems that support positive (we hope) user experiences. You could think of the things we design as experience facilitators or experience enablers.

Why I'm not a UX Designer

Design implies control. Experiences resulting from things we design and saying we design those experiences are not at all the same.

I don't call myself a UX Designer for one simple reason: I don't believe experiences can be designed. At least not outside the realm of science fiction or without knowledge about ourselves that we have yet to discover. I view User Experience as a field of study with a range of disciplines within it, not something we author (particularly not by a single designer). Products are designed. Experiences are their resultants.

Many will disagree. But for me it seems presumptuous and a bit hubristic to view it any other way.

What does UX design mean to you?

Responsive ads

Among the gripes I have about responsive web design is the issue of display ads. The most popular ad units today are a product of the desktop web experience. These are fixed sizes and entirely unfit for the mobile form factor. In keeping with most mobile metrics, mobile display advertising in the U.S. has over doubled in the last 24 months. Again, these are ads at fixed sizes, and there are many of them to suit various mobile screen dimensions and densities.

These can be nightmarish conditions for responsive design.

So here's a thought: Why not experiment with ads that are themselves responsive? They could be packaged up with their own media queries and progressively dependent assets and served to a wide range of devices.

Someone out there should try it. Just sayin.

Smartphone Usage: Guessing vs. Knowing

Pew research released their Smartphone Adoption and Usage survey today, its first survey of smartphone usage. Some unshocking takeaways: * Smartphone penetration is greater among the affluent and under 45 years old. * One-third of cell owners are smartphone owners. * 68% of smartphone owners access the Internet and/or email on a daily basis.

But some have gone further and are saying "25 percent prefer smartphones over PCs for internet access."

Whoa, what? One of four of us prefer a smartphone for our Internet needs? That's a significant finding. But there's only one problem with it: We don't know that.

There's no way one can make the claim that they prefer smartphone access, and reporting it that way is speculative at best. Here's the survey's question.

>Overall, when you use the Internet, do you do that mostly using your cell phone or mostly using some other device like a desktop, laptop or tablet computer?

Twenty-five percent said they used their phone. What the survey didn't go into was the conditions surrounding that access. First, of that 25 percent, 16 percent didn't even have an alternative option. This suggests that part of the 25 was due to necessity. Second, what qualifies as "using the Internet"? Is it checking my Twitter feed and checking in on Foursquare? Or is it doing things like playing fantasy football or looking for a new car? Third, what about other contextual factors? Are they traveling frequently? Maybe they have an hour train commute every day? What kind of content are they engaging with? Is their home internet access opressively slow? (My parents' internet connection clocks at a dawdling 0.17 Mbps. So on visits I turn to my iPhone, which is faster by multiples. But that doesn't mean I prefer it if all things were equal. There's so much web content I'd simply rather consume on a laptop.) There's plenty of things people might "normally" do for a wide range of reasons, but not necessarily because they prefer to.

We know mobile usage has exploded, and there's plenty of ink about that. But we shouldn't report things that we don't really know to be true.