Improving Performance Improvement: A UX Perspective

This post is an interview I gave to the blog 3-Star Learning Experiences. User Experience and Learning Experience Design are interweaved, and since I work on UX for EdTech, I have to say a thing or two about it. Specifically, this blog is about user behaviour when the setting is corporate education and the educational objective is “performance improvement”.

What do employees need to be motivated to strive for performance improvement?

Motivation has been popularly broken down into intrinsic and extrinsic, based on neuropsychological observations [1,2]. In the grand scheme of things we can hold these observations as true; on the one hand, the experiments where these observations came from were primarily performed on western white men, so they say more about our lifestyle rather than about the human condition [3]. On the other hand, the demographic situation in the workplace changes quite slowly, and is (unfortunately, but still) adequately reflected on research demographics, so I do not think we can just totally dismiss contemporary research quite yet. That is, we have just recently only started to crack the code, so everything we say should be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, here’s what we know.

Extrinsic motivation works but can only go so far. At some stage you’ll have all the recognition you want from your peers, and your bonuses are going to be enough that you’re happy with what you make, and you’ll want no more, because then you’ll have to increase your management efforts and you don’t want to get into that. People want neither too much money, nor too many options [4,5]. So everything goes well. Is that enough?

Typically not. At the very least, extrinsic motivation is not going to be enough for the employees who matter most. We can kid ourselves with “celebrating how everyone matters blah blah blah” (Insert mental image of flowers, unicorns, and rainbows here. And kittens. Lots of them), but the hard-to-swallow truth is that some people will be more willing to contribute than others. And that’s totally fine. Not everyone needs to be a star. The important thing to follow is that the contributing people need to know why they should improve their performance in the first place, and this implies that their organisation has to give them a sense of vision, purpose, and facilitate participation. Participation allows for the ownership of said vision and purpose. That’s a really strong motivator and, in my opinion, as much as you can get from people. I can think of no better way to make intrinsic motivation work.

My proposition is that we should look into ancient Democracies for ideas. They were doing all these things to a great extent, they did so in practice rather than in theory, and they did not have the ideological baggage we have now. We cannot copy ideas from them, because the world has fundamentally changed since then and also because ancient Democracies were not perfect, so I am totally against romanticising and sanctifying the ancient world. Rather, I am looking for inspiration, because these regimes were highly practical and innovative, as their motivation was to solve practical problems they had at the time, and not ideology ABC or XYZ. We have to take this inspiration and change it and transform it and own it and make it suitable for the 21st Century. Obviously I am not the first person to have come up with this idea [6].

Whatever the changes we need to make in order to adapt ancient ideas to the present, and however imperfect the ancients were, one cannot underestimate the fact that ancient Democracies kept the motivation of an entire populace high for many hundred years. This was in par with high performance in a broad variety of sectors that were important to them.

What does performance improvement actually mean? We came up with the feedback tool to assess competencies but what would be other ways to ‘measure’ performance improvement?

First of, let’s do justice to feedback so that then we can get to the measuring part. I think it’s confusing to jump straight ahead to the assessing bit and connect our feedback tool with assessment and measuring. At the very least I would be careful with the choice of words in order to make the point that formative self- or peer assessment is significantly different to summative measuring. They’re worlds apart, really.

The feedback tool is primarily aimed at gathering more accurate information (via the SMART path), and is also about increasing the awareness around competencies (the assessment spiral [7]) and helping with professional development. It’s almost a social networking tool which can help the sense of ownership around the use of competencies in day-to-day activities and what they actually mean to people. People get to actually type in what a competency means to them, in a specific context. They give their own meaning to it. That much you can certainly do with feedback, and it’s an amazing starting point.

How to go from there to measuring, is a more difficult nut to crack and I haven’t seen any convincing answers out there. Maybe some exist, but I haven’t seen them. Personally I think we’re at the stage where we need to find the right questions to ask first, rather than look for answers yet. I am not so sure that rigid models and frameworks by big multi-nationals will help. I know it’s a personal opinion and nothing more, but I think that a (small, unfortunately) number of startups have improved the world more than the rigid top-down psychometrics Big Brother-ish performance reviews. As formative assessment of feedback you can run some quantitative algorithms such as sentiment analysis etc., but again you’ll only surface evidence about a behaviour. This evidence may or may not mean anything, as there is no proof that the evidence is not a false positive or similar.

To me, performance improvement is about impact, including societal impact. There is no set standard of metrics and KPIs to measure that, but some have to exist for each case. Each organisation has to find these metrics and give them meaning. I’ll bring in Castoriadis’s notion that life has no meaning in itself, other than the one we give to it [14]. A brilliant analogy he gives is how a gravity field has no weight itself, but it allows for mass inside it to have weight.

It’s no easy task to give meaning with regard to what impact means for an organisation, and that’s where the effort within the organisation should go; no technology is going to solve this, ever. Of course technology can help individual bits and pieces, like capturing feedback etc. Of course it’s worth working on these technologies and figuring them out—just don’t expect they will solve the world.

Do you think a ‘system change’ or a ‘process change’ is (part of) what they need?
If so, how?

Bingo! I think that a big system change is necessary in general. Also in the field of meaning and not just processes. A dangerous shift in thought processes has taken place lately and it is worth explaining before looking into how all this applies to the workplace.

While organisations have started valuing design thinking and participation lately, a big deal of relativism and of what I call “pop post-modernism” has also crept into them, almost cancelling the positive effects of participative design.

The philosophy of the 20th Ce. was modernist: we were trying to find certainties about the human condition. What we knew, we were certain about; that was literally the philosophy of the 20th Ce., meaning that it was the way that established philosophers were thinking, and also the way of thinking of the masses and the workplace. People were so certain about their ideas that they would give their life—or kill—for them. Experts in knowledge, like educators and scientists, became the new priest-like figures.

A criticism that arose around this way of modernist thinking was that it allowed, if not facilitated, ideologies like Stalinism, Fascism, and Nazism. Thus, as a reaction to these ideologies, post-modernism was born. As people have often done, they went from one extreme to the other: extreme modernism somehow justified extreme post-modernism and we ended up with a situation where we threw away the baby with the bath water. Previously we were certain about everything; now we’re supposed to—a la Jon Snow—know nothing. We were valuing opinions on authority alone; now all opinions are (supposed to be: see below) treated as equal, even the non-sensical ones. It’s as if humanity refuses to realise that two wrongs don’t make one right, and tries to fix old wrongs by new ones.

Universities’ Humanities departments bear the main responsibility for this ridiculousness. Pop-star philosophers like Foucault, Chomsky, or Zizek were the spearheads of this pop post-modernism. They brought thinking way back to a dark age where everything is an equally valid opinion, and facts on the ground and hard data do not matter: practising what they preached, they generalised situations beyond proportions or left other ideas with no explanation whatsoever, since their unjustified opinion could be as valid as any (see an example at [8]).

Thus, we are at a stage that many of our journalists, educators, and policy makers have had this type of education in College, with a number of effects. Firstly, these ideas have too often led to outright censorship. Each and every idea that is based on fact or data is a priori dismissed as a hegemonic construct of Western technocratic capitalism that will invariably and inevitably lead to oppression [9]. Ironically, in dismissing these ideas without allowing any further discussion the post-modernists are doing everything they claim to be against: they oppress everyone they disagree with, based on unexamined ideas taken straight from some academic authority figures.

Secondly, this relativism makes it almost impossible to act on really anything. Since all opinions are equally valid, vague notions of “the hegemonic”, “the system”, and “the processes” take over the course of History and personal responsibility is thrown out of the window. Humans are not responsible for their actions anymore, but only bearers of an identity, which is either oppressed or an oppressor [10]. Thus, change is up to “the system”, “the organisation”, “the corporation”, without it being first and foremost about any individual changing either their behaviours or their cognitive frameworks.

Now try to bring this into the workplace and have a design session, e.g. with a brainstorming half and an idea selection half, with post-modernists. You will generate a great variety of ideas indeed, but when you get to the idea selection? Tough luck. There are no certainties whatsoever to guide you, and if anyone proposes one it will immediately be dismissed as outright evil. You end up getting the participation and the ownership bit, but not the vision or purpose. Which is why you lately see so many people having no other ideas than how to replicate their mothers [11] or put a chip in a thing and call it “smart” [12]. This is not innovation. It’s post-modernism.

Another equally distracting goal is to be lean for the sake of it. By doing what’s easier first, you can just as well forget your purpose and vision and produce something just because you can. While lean can work when there’s a clear vision, it’s not a substitute for some good, old, liberal, open-minded modernism.

We shouldn’t be forgetting that many modernists were also critics of extremist modernist ideologies, so we don’t need post-modernism for that. Philosophers like Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadis, were modernists who critiqued authoritarianism, including how authoritarianism in the workplace can eliminate motivation and can be, ultimately, inhuman [13,14,15]. Also, extremisms like jihadism etc. still exist and thrive on post-modern ideologies of cultural relativism, ipso facto the argument that blames old extremisms on modernism alone does not hold.

This critical or radical modernism is, in my view, the system change we need. Again, let’s re-visit ancient Democracies for a moment. Let’s take ourselves back to a design session in ancient Athens. The general assemblies decided that Athens should expand its sea trade; experts innovated by improving the design of Phoenician ships into the faster and more convenient trireme. There was no design-by-committee scenario where the general assembly in Athens designed a ship, or the Parthenon. This is routinely misunderstood and people casually throw around the word democracy to mean design-by-committee, which is not what it is. I don’t know if they had the right roles in their system, but I think it’s good to understand that democracy is not an everything-goes situation, but needs clearly defined roles. I guess in modern systems we may need some fluid roles, but again that’s something that should be designed and defined as part of a system change and not just hope it emerges.

Overall, I strongly believe these type of system changes will increase intrinsic motivation significantly.

Do you believe that each individual has the potential to continue to change and/or improve? Why not?

To this I would answer yes and no. By that I mean that I believe that anyone has the potential to improve a bit, most of the time, in the sense that our system seems to push people quantitatively but not qualitatively. There should be space for doing better, not necessarily more. But again, to what extent is potential important?

I think that you nailed it when you asked about motivation. Because I don’t see most people willing to realise their potential, so in a way it doesn’t even matter if they have it or not in the first place. Maybe the system change we talked about will bring it on; till then I wouldn’t hold my breath. People may want to leave their potential unrealised because they’re demotivated, indifferent, or even just stupid. I think that Cipolla’s “Laws of Stupidity” [16] have been underestimated as one of the major driving forces in human History. Surely HR departments do not consider it as a counter-criterion in their hiring processes, as we have all found out the hard way.

Having said that, I think that while not each and every individual will or should improve, many (most? I don’t know) can, and the opportunity for them should be there. It’s not obvious how that happens now—“do a Professional Development course” does not do it for me. I expect us to do better than that, not more! Apprenticeships/mentoring are inherently more expensive than courses, but we need to move this way, and the economy has to find a way to facilitate this move. However, even this will not work if the aforementioned values and policies around vision, purpose, and participation are not in place.

  1. R. Ryan, E. Deci, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000)
  2. W. Lee et al., “Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: an fMRI study”, Neurosci Res. 2012 May; 73(1): 68–72
  3. E. Kapros, “Why the Latest Brain Study You Read is Probably Wrong”, In::formation Blog, Jan 8 2014
  4. L. Lee, “Research: Too Many Choices Can Derail Success”, Stanford Business, Nov 26 2013
  5. A. Blackman, “Can Money Buy You Happiness?”,The Wall Street Journal, Nov 10 2014
  6. F. Dosse, “Castoriadis: Democracy’s Advocate”, OECD Insights, Oct 5 2014
  7. A. Costa et al., “Assessment in the Learning Organisation”, ASCD, 1995
  8. A prominent example includes Foucault’s observations on mental institutions. While these institutions where indeed functioning by excluding and extremely oppressing the Other, the generalisation of this schema to society at large should be questioned. It is a ridiculously bold and completely unjustified statement—although an extremely popular one, nowadays—to say that societies never Self-institute themselves through their own Self, and that they always institute themselves by excluding the Other. Ask why, and you are an oppressor, just because. Post-modernism is magic. Not in a good way.
  9. N. Cohen, “You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom”, Fourth Estate, Aug 1 2013
  10. B. Bawer, “The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind”, Broadside Books, Sept 4 2012
  11. B. Carson, “Silicon Valley Startups are Obsessed with Developing Tech to Replace their Moms”, Business Insider UK, May 10 2015
  12. “We put a Chip in It!”, Tumblr, Accessed Dec 14 2015
  13. H. Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Schocken Books, 1951 and H. Arendt, “The Human Condition”, University of Chicago Press, 1958
  14. C. Castoriadis, “The Imaginary Institution of Society”, MIT Press, 1987
  15. M. Merleau-Ponty, “The Phenomenology of Perception”, Routledge, 2005
  16. C. Cipolla, “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”, Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987

The (educational) case for Exchange Dublin

This is the first post that is not directly about some aspect of a user interface or other interactive technology. Rather, it’s a post about something that just happened in Dublin. Dublin City Council decided to close Exchange Dublin. The reason given was “anti-social behaviour“. You can sign the petition if you wish to see it alive; if you don’t have a clue what it’s all about, you can just read the comments by the people who signed the petition. They say how awesome a cultural space Exchange has been.

Education and “21st Century Skills”

Since all these people say a lot about the contribution of Exchange to culture, and since I’m no artist, I’ll talk about what I personally know. Exchange has helped young people with some things which are key skills, as experts say: working with others, communicating, and being creative. And, if the Irish State is going through all this work to reform the curriculum to follow these principles, shouldn’t Dublin City provide its young residents with the opportunity to practise these key skills?


Processing Dublin was a monthly event in Exchange Dublin where student got to talk and showcase creative technology projects, per Dublin City Council “anti-social behaviour”.

How do I know that this behaviour took place there? It’s because I’ve participated in organising a couple of events there. One, called Processing Dublin (part of the Processing Cities project), was a monthly meeting organised by myself and @saorog (to whom I haven’t talked about this blog post and might as well be disagreeing with whatever I’m saying here). It was about creative technology, and myself, Stephen, or students were talking about or showcasing projects on graphics, data visualisation, or other interactive audiovisual applications.

Thus, I personally know that students there were engaged in creative technology, and with each other. The skills that the NCCA is just starting to apply for the junior and senior cycles, were already there. Of course, these skills were partly there, as it’s one thing to have a meetup of already interested in technology students, and it’s different to try to work with every student. And that’s why Exchange is awesome, because interested students can could get together and make a creative project happen. And Dublin City Council appears not to want this.

Double Standards

The Council say that they appreciate Exchange’s work but that they worry about “anti-social behaviour”. To begin with, define “anti-social behaviour”. No concrete explanation was given, but the assumption at last Wednesday’s weekly open general meeting at Exchange was that it was about some loud people by Cow’s Lane, totally unrelated to Exchange itself. No incident inside Exchange, an open, no-alcohol, social space happened that would be considered by any sane person as anti-social.

However, let’s assume for the sake of the argument, that there had been an incident in Exchange. Shouldn’t the Council see to addressing the incident rather than closing down the space? Whenever there is an incident in Dublin they close down the place where it happened? If drunk people fight in a pub do they close the pub down? No they don’t. If there is confirmed massive abuse by the Church do they close the Church down? No they don’t. They try to address each incident separately. And rightly so.

Of course, they cannot do such a thing with Exchange, because no such incident happened. That’s why the double standards. At the end of the day, I don’t think that creative people will take it, I’m sure that a new space will be found to house Exchange’s activities. However, it’s a shame that the Council gets in the way of activities it should seek to promote. It’s a shame that the Council shuts down a space whose activities have been one step ahead of national educational strategy.

Why the latest brain study you read is probably wrong

There are many articles lately which claim that behaviour xyz has been confirmed by some brain study. For my PhD research and for my UX work I have looked at a lot of these studies, and I can point to a number of issues I have come accross a lot. Like, really, really, a lot.

  • Reporting: Many articles do a lousy job on understanding brain studies or report the results inappropriately.
  • The WEIRD Effect: Sometimes these brain studies are biased, as plenty are performed on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) sample sources. Usually, a researcher will use undergrads of their department in a country of the “West” and draw conclusion from this sample. The researcher or others (see “Reporting”) might wrongfully generalise these conclusions to a broader sample. So, yes, we don’t really know how the brain of non-Westerners functions in the same detail as we do for Westerners.
  • Neuroplasticity: Our brain is not static; rather, it is very flexible and its flexibility awards established patterns. These patterns may vary over time and accross cultures.


Thus, many epistomological mistakes might be applied by a combination of the above. In plain terms, if in one culture the people have dessert and coffee at the end of each meal, the brains of these people will want to automate this feature. Thus, the neurons of the areas related to the meal, the dessert and coffee, will change how they wire in order to be firing together (neuroplasticity). That is, if you do some things together a lot, then your brain will group this things together, in order to save energy/resources. Because these neurons are now grouped together, if you now have a meal, you will also want dessert and coffee because the related neurons are going to fire together.

That is, our brain structure depends on our customs, as our brain structure changes over time. Now, if one takes many people from the same culture (who also have dessert and coffee), they will most probably have the same wiring/grouping in their brains, too (because they’re used to doing the same things). If one scans their brains, it’s probable that the same brain signal patterns will occur, since the same habits will have formed the same brain patterns (the WEIRD effect).


Many popular examples show this issue. Apart from myths like the left/right brain division, other myths have wider implications. For example, a myth says that {happiness = achievementsexpectations}. There’s nothing but opinion to support that pseudo-equation. This might appear to be true for a generation of people from country X; fair enough: how is that relevant to humanity?

It’s not. It’s culturally biased opinion, and it’s easy to see behind the smoke and mirrors. In a culture where effort is valued more than achievements or expectations, we would see people there having trouble to see how expectations are meaningful. In the same way that in many countries wasting time doesn’t make any sense.

Imagine if you scan the brains of people from various cultures. Now that you know about neuroplasticity and the WEIRD effect, what do you think would happen?

Bad Philosophy

Not just popular reporting but also science has its issues. In bad epistemology we can add the misunderstanding of philosophical underpinnings of science. Some have gone so far as to say that humans have no free will because choosing between a red and a green button during an experiment is done at a subconscious level.

The assumption here is that these researchers apparently consider the human subconsious as something extra-human; if they understood the subconscious as a human trait then subconscious desicions would still be considered free will, wouldn’t they?

In addition, these experiments about how a WEIRD sample behaves in order to choose this or the other coloured button in a split second seem to have little effect on the discourse about free will. How is the decision to push a button similar to meaningful and important decisions in our life? I am certain that apart from any subconscious processes, I also consciously thought about practicing a profession, or about being with a partner. A brain scan would show the effect of both conscious and subconscious processes in my brain; what effect would that have on free will?

Finally, let me clear that hear I’m not arguing in favour or against the existence of free will. All I’m saying, is that brain scans of 20th-21st century Westerners are not an argument for or against its existence. In the same way that colours don’t have specific meanings but their perception is culture specific.

Resource: “Color” Tag Printable Cheat Sheet

Lately, I have started using more and more D3 for visualisations. Having used it at work for various projects, we had to adjust the colour palette of each project accordingly. Since D3 uses SVG for graphics, I started looking at the <color> tag.

Apart from the tag definition, W3C provide a list of keywords one can use instead of RGB values; this is extremely useful, as one can use the following to produce code that makes sense the moment you look at it:

var colours[lightsteelblue, lightskyblue, deepskyblue];

A list of keyword per RGB <color> is here. That was very useful, but I needed more than a list on the web. I looked for a cheat sheet on the web but didn’t find any. So, I did the following.

Firstly, I wanted to colour-sample when building mockups, so I made the following images (feel free to download):

Color tag and keywords - page 1

Color tag and keywords – page 1

Color tag keywords - page 2

Color tag keywords – page 2

Moreover, I wanted to look at this list even before turning my computer on, during sketching phase. So, I put the images above in a printable color-keywords cheat sheet [pdf].

Enjoy these resources!🙂

Content is Queen?

No, I’m not into content strategy all of a sudden. It’s just that from a human-computer interaction point of view, user experience is really important. And that means that the experience of browsing content is of paramount importance.

Now, not all content is equal; news organisations should pay more attention than others, for example. Surprisingly enough, lately I’ve come across many news organisations that fail to successfully deliver content in a usable way. I mean, look at this:

content image

Actual content at a news org website covering one sixth of the browser window.

The actual content covers one sixth (approximately, I didn’t count pixels) of the window! The article is this narrow column at the left hand-side of the page. The rest of the screen doesn’t matter to me, and I didn’t ask for it. Widgets, ads, and all these irrelevant things that were supposedly caused by Flash ads are still here, unblockable though, as they’ve been implemented in JavaScript. Where’s my news story? Why do I have to scroll so much?

I see this type of design more and more at news websites; no offense to the one I got the screenshot from—does it actually happen increasingly or is it just me? Let me know what you think!😉

HCI for Peace Ideathon: SIG at CHI 2013

SIG at CHI 2013, Wednesday May 1st – 9:00-10:20

J. Hourcade (Univ. of Iowa, USA), L. Nathan (Univ. of British Columbia, CA), P. Zaphiris (Cyprus Univ. of Technology, CY), M. Zancanaro (FBK-irst, IT), E. Kapros (Trinity College, The Univ. of Dublin, IE), J. Thomas (IBM T. J. Watson Research, USA), D. Busse (Samsung, USA)

Computers are increasingly mediating the way people make decisions, including those that can have an effect on conflict and peace. In addition, recent research provides empirical data on the factors that affect the likelihood of armed conflict. These conditions provide an unprecedented opportunity to the human-computer interaction community to play a role in preventing, de-escalating, and recovering from conflicts. This SIG will be the first opportunity for CHI attendees to meet during the main part of the conference, share their ideas, and provide concrete ways to move forward with this line of research.

Usability of Log-in pages

Just quickly, some log-in pages of popular services have gone to the too fancy side of things. Which is not really usable. Let’s see, as an example, vimeo:


vimeo LogIn Screen

So, when I browse to the log-in page, the focus goes to the first text field to enter the… username? Maybe the e-mail address? Maybe both are ok, as it is increasingly the case (btw, how do they handle md5 in this case?)?

OK, so you’ll have to tab to the password field so that the focus leaves the first field to discover that only e-mail does the job, and then Shift+tab back to fill it in. Sorry, but there are so many services we use each and every day nowadays, that it’s not very usable to do that all the time.

Overall, the recent vimeo redesign was lovely and only details like this were not taken care of. And, in fairness, many popular services now have the same log-in model (auto-focus on the field) which is why I decided to write about it. It’s not that I have a problem with vimeo in general (it should go without saying, since I am using their service, but you never know).

So, I prefer services that have remained a bit more old-fashioned and always show you what they need from the user, so far Linkedin and WordPress are like that. See below.

Linkedin ask for your e-mail and, despite the auto-focus, you know, because the label is before the text field.


log-in Linkedin screen

WordPress is good with e-mail or username (really, if you know how the md5 works in this case leave a comment), again the label is before the text field.


log-in WordPress Screen

Next time you design a log-in page, consider!🙂