Frog House


I think about this story so often I made a logo for it.

When I was nine, I built something of a modernist mansion out of Legos. It had an open floor plan with a staircase to the second floor in the middle. Now that I think about it, that kinda describes the house I live in now. Anyway,  I scoured my collection of Legos for as many windows as possible. That wasn’t easy. Lego kept things pretty basic back then and blocks with angles or clear plastic were super rare. This took serious time and concentration. I added some furniture, sealed the roof down, and opened the front door for the new occupants.

It was early summer and tiny frogs were emerging from stagnant water next to a storm drain a nearby stream. I went down to the stream (work with me here) and captured about five penny-sized frogs, (toads, ok) brought them home in a butter tub, (right, I know, not really butter either) and put them in the Lego house. This involved more jumping out than I had anticipated.

When I finally got them all in, I carefully sat the house down in happy anticipation of the joy these frogs would have exploring their new home. I wished so hard that I could be a froglet (yeah, that’s a word – look it up) inside that awesome house. I would look out the windows, sit on the couch, but most importantly I would run up the stairs and discover the whole second floor.

There is a feeling I am thinking about. Anyone who has presented a home cooked gourmet meal to a four year old who only likes bread and ketchup knows this feeling (see below). That feeling when you have worked very hard to make something wonderful, and that wonderful thing is rejected. Pearls before swine, you might think. It is more than a disappointment. It is an offense.


My son enjoying penne pasta in fresh garden-grown basil pesto with marinated vegetables and pan-seared tofu.

It is in the nature of the creative person to make things in happy anticipation of their debut. It think it’s necessary, even when making art for hire, to tap into your own desire. You have to look at the blank page and wish for something there. If you don’t like it, how can you expect anyone else to?

So when the frogs just sat there. I had that feeling.

Motivated reasoning builds an explanation after having an emotional reaction to facts. Our brains, by design, process emotions faster than logic. Logic, late to the game, has to operate in the atmosphere of that bias. So I decided the frogs were idiots. Stupid idiots.

Temperamental architect that I was at the age of nine, I wasn’t homicidal. Or whatever the word is for frog-killer. I gave them (and me) some time to think about it, and returned them to the pond.

That pause is crucial to giving logic an advantage over emotion. If you can isolate how you feel about the facts before figuring out what is happening, you have better chance at reaching a rational conclusion and creating an effective solution.

Last week I had some designs in usability testing. I had made a decision to add one or two clicks to a process in the service of clarity, and clarity was successfully achieved. Users knew what to do and the design was hailed as a success. But I heard a few users call out the extra clicks. “You put an extra step in here. It’s going to take longer.”

Time to take apart the frog house.


Getting innovation from a spigot.

There is a difference between a conceptual model (the way a user thinks about a system), and a functional model (how a system actually works). There is also a difference between what a system does and what the user wants. We tend to overlook these differences to get things done, but if you take the time to identify the needs and models, you’ll find opportunity in the gaps.

Let’s look at the humble faucet (hat tip to Donald Norman). First, faucets were positioned over sinks and tubs to save the user a trip to the well. At this point the functional model and the conceptual model and the user need all aligned. By turning a lever or wheel the user could adjust the amount of water coming out of the faucet. The user might memorize which direction to turn the control, but no advanced technical knowledge was need to understand how a valve works.

need1 concept1 function1

The addition of heated water complicated the device and at the same time users were adjusting their needs to the new capabilities. Initially, the hot water was added as a second spigot, but users had moved their focus from the receptacle to the stream and they wanted moving water, not just a full bowl or bucket. And users didn’t want one cold stream and one scalding stream, they wanted to control the temperature and flow of a single stream. This was solved by mixing the two sources after the valves. The resulting device was still simple enough to be understood by users and they were able to manipulate the system to match their needs.

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But the cognitive load on a system like this is significantly higher [than the single temperature spigot] because the relationship between the user needs and the functional model is no longer one-to-one. Users want a specific temperature and flow, but adjusting the temperature also changes the flow and vice versa. So any adjustment to a single user need requires two adjustments to the system. The burden of translating user needs to the functional model is put on the user. With this complexity comes errors, and opportunity.

In the 1940s Alfred Moen burned his hand under a faucet and thought, “you ought to be able to get what you want out of a faucet.” He invented the single handle mixing faucet to solve this problem. Now the movements of the controls mapped directly to the user needs — forward and back for flow, and left and right for temperature — and the user no longer needed to understand how the system actually worked.

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In the 50’s housing boom after WWII the single handle mixing faucet became an icon of modern living and the cornerstone of one of the largest plumbing product companies in the world. So look at those gaps between the user needs, conceptual model, and the functional model, because that’s where opportunities lie.

Addendum. Here’s a question now that we’re thinking about faucets. There is another gap between the user needs and the functional model. It’s that pipe full of cold water sitting between the faucet and the water heater. Users know they need to flush the cold water out to get to the hot water, but again the user has to translate their need onto the functional model. What innovations can you think of to close that gap?