Showing posts tagged UX

The Softer Side Of Conferences

Last week I attended the 15th Information Architecture Summit in San Diego, California. Besides being held in what has quickly become one of my favorite spots in the country, the conference had an incredible line-up and more importantly, an incredible community of attendees.

As I sat through talks and joined in hallway conversations I noticed a familiar trend in what was being discussed. More than being about new techniques and tools, I felt as though I was hearing admissions and confessions from both speakers and attendees alike. For as much as any presenter seemed to talk about some new concept, there was a human story about the challenges they went through that helped them find it.

There were talks on imposter syndrome, management, team dynamics, collaboration, working with difficult people, and more. Even the talks that were more future-looking or that seemed more “design” or tech-focused felt somewhat confessional.

For some audience members the stories shared were intended to help them (hopefully) avoid the speaker’s experiences in their own endeavors. For others the intention was more to build understanding that they, the attendee, are not alone; that others have gone through what they have. That yes, this work and the work of any creative professional, is frustratingly hard at times, because we work with people, and people can be irrational, emotional, crazy-ass animals.

The conversations in the hall at the conference continued this same trend. And from there they moved into life outside work, so-called work/life balance.

The conference felt to as much a support group as it did a learning environment.

It’s something I’ve seen in many of the conferences I’ve attended but has always seemed strongest in those held by a community organization rather than a business. And for some reason, I felt it stronger this year than I have in the past (this was my 6th summit).

Many others have observed the same thing, and what I’ve written so far may seem obvious and inconsequential. But I’m writing this for a reason. Because the older I get the more I see this side of conferences as being the more important side, the more valuable side to an attendee. And that’s a challenge because the majority of where attendees registration fees are being paid from are organizations who don’t see or care about this aspect. Businesses and organizations send designers and creative talent for two main purposes: learn new skills and make new professional connections.

But the thing about working in any creative industry, about being a “creative” is that it IS NOT just what we do. It is who we are. It is a part of how we feel, think and perceive the world. It draws on impulse and emotion as much as it does intellect and skill. It is all together exhilarating and exhausting.

We need the support groups and confessionals that these conferences bring. This isn’t something that many employers understand or even want to. They want a return on their investment, and to them that comes from new skills, productivity or opportunities, not someone’s “creative soul” feeling healed.

So while employers may not see this, conference organizers should,and I know many that do. Think about your attendees and why they’re coming. Understand that attendees are in a position of needing to satisfy their employers goals but also have their own, more human needs(even though they may not realize it).

Design your conference to give people opportunities to genuinely connect. Alcohol and happy hours are great in moderation, but find other, more subdued ways based on community and communication as well. Choose experienced speakers who have a history of telling personal stories and making themselves available to attendees off of the stage. Choose new speakers who want to share their experiences, not for the spotlight, but because they want to find others who have had them too. And help your attendees sell your conference to their bosses so that they can attend. Guide them in crafting justifications, and find ways to continue to add value even after the event is over.

I know it seems like a lot, but I’m lucky enough to know some organizers who’ve done exactly these things, and I’m even luckier to have gotten to attend some of their events. It works. And it truly makes for a better industry, community and individuals.

The Two Purposes of Sketching

Over the past few years “sketching” has become an often talked about activity in the web/ux design space. I don’t think there’s a question as to whether or not sketching is a valuable exercise. But I do think that over time we’ve begun to fetishize the act of sketching, or maybe more precisely the sketches themselves.

At one point I was the curator of Johnny Holland's (the online interaction design magazine) flickr groups, one of which was dedicated to sketches. The more sketches that I saw being submitted, the more I became curious about the patterns I was seeing. These “sketches” were often pristine documents, lines meticulously placed, with precise edges and indicating elements like rounded corners, drop shadows, I even saw some that seemed to indicate font selections like serif vs san-serif. It was obvious that the creators had taken a great bit of care in creating them.

The more I saw, the more I wondered, why were the creators doing this. Is this what sketching is about?

I’ve studied art and illustration since I was 14; when I was 19 I also started studying animation. Sketching plays a huge part in these practices and in my time studying them I’ve come to understand two distinct but connected purposes for sketching.

Purpose: Communication

Particularly in commercial applications of art, sketches themselves are used to communicate a basic idea, such as composition. Often this is done in the context of getting approval to move ahead form an art director or client. For example, sometimes when I do commissions, I get a clients OK on a sketch prior to starting on what will be the final piece.

A lot has been said about the ability of a sketch to quickly communicate an idea and to serve as a catalyst for productive conversation on the elements of a design. Where many ux and web designers used to lean on wireframes, sketches have been seen as a potentially faster tool that has less of a tendency to be turned into “documentation”.

Sketches are a great vehicle for communicating basic aspects and concepts within a piece without having to spend time to create something final or near final, or spending time thinking through detailed decisions that aren’t, at the point in time, important.

It’s clear to me that, in the sketches I was seeing on Flickr, this was the main purpose the creators were striving for. They were looking for a way to communicate their ideas to others. But what was concerning was the level of detail to which they were going. At the point in a process where sketching is useful do things like drop shadows and line weight matter? Were they really saving much in the way of time?

And there was something else that seemed to be missing…

The Other Purpose: Idea Exploration

The other purpose of sketching, and to me the primary purpose of any sketch, is to explore an idea. By sketching something out on paper we are able to quickly see how the pieces of our idea will actually fit together when assembled. Gaps quickly make themselves evident and we start to see opportunities for variations and entirely different paths and approaches.

Sketches start a stream of thinking that produces curves, branches, redirections and all sorts of changes to our thought process around possible solutions. All of this tends to happen rapidly and so sketches take on a “messy” and sometimes jumbled quality. This is a major component of what I felt was missing. There was no evidence in the “sketches” I was seeing that an evolution in thought was taking place.

So was it that messy quality that I’m missing? Yes and no. What I wasn’t seeing was evidence that ideas were being explored and that the creators were investigating the numerous variations that their sketches made apparent were possible. Instead they appeared as if the creator had a very precise image of what they wanted to put on the page and then did so with great precision. And took extra time to embellish their rendering with details that likely didn’t matter much.

How much time did they really save? How much more time could they have saved? How many other ideas could they have explored as part of their sketching?

If you look at the sketchbooks of an industrial designer or character designer, you’ll see essentially the same objects or characters drawn over and over again, but differently. Sometimes it’ll just be subtle changes from picture to picture, sometimes it will look almost completely different, but the sketches show an evolution of thought and the exploration down those paths.

Maybe all this is present in the things I didn’t see in the photographs. Maybe I was just seeing pictures of one sketch out of many. It’s completely possible. But only being able to judge by what I could see in the photos and photo streams, I was left to wonder. And I’ve seen this pattern show up outside of those flickr submissions as well.

Connecting the Purposes

The two purposes are closely tied. A designer may explore an idea and then use the sketches generated to share their ideas with others. Additionally, A sketch may serve as a catalyst, used to to communicate an initial idea to a group who will then together explore that idea likely through successive sketching.

Is it OK to sketch with the sole purpose of communicating? I suppose. Not sure I could say it isn’t. But I do think it’s important to fully understand what sketching is good for and when to do it.

Is this a discussion of semantics: What does it mean to “sketch”? Maybe. But as I’ve mentioned before, I think semantics are important. What we call things matters, particularly because we are expected to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it quite often, especially in cases of collaboration.

So when you sketch, are you exploring an idea? How many variations or alternatives are you sketching out so that you can compare and contrast to find the best choice? How much detail are you putting in? Are those details important right now?

Designers are individuals.

Ask a designer what the best solution for a particular problem is and you’re likely to hear everyone’s favorite answer: it depends.

And it’s true. It’s not that they can’t come up with an answer. It’s that the answer to most design questions are dependent on numerous factors.

Based on the question, the answer could depend on who your users are and their expectations or behaviors. It might depend on where and in what context or setting they’ll be using your product. Maybe it depends on what your business goals are and how they conflict or align with your user’s goals. Or possibly, it depends on the other interactions that users have with your product or service and how they relate to the question at hand. It could be one of these things, it could be a combination. The list goes on…

Know what else it depends on?… It depends on which designer you ask.

Design, while it draws conclusions from various sciences, is not concrete. It’s open to interpretation. The more I work in this field the more I’ve come to see it as a type of informed decision making that, as a designer matures, is guided by philosophy and style.

It’s these two elements that fascinate me most about designers (and creatives in general). Because in the business world of UX Design (and many other design worlds) there doesn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of interest in, or room to talk about, a designer’s style. At least not in my experience.

Now I’m not talking about the design community and all the various clubs and cliques that make it up. God knows that differences in style and philosophy come up all over the place there, even if it’s not directly cited. Hell, if we couldn’t talk about anything that arises out of differences in the community, I think designers would all start mistaking each other for mutes.

But see, this is a challenge for design teams, particularly design agencies and consultancies. These groups are trying to build a brand around both how and what they design. This is who they are. This is how they become known to potential clients. But, give every designer in an agency the same problem to solve and chances are they’ll come up with a different solution. More than that, they’re likely to take a different path in getting there.

On my own team I know that I have a very different style and approach than more than a few of my teammates. Some differences are small, some are friggin’ ginormous. And as I talk to other designers, I hear them talking about the differences on their teams as well.

Differences are good though, right? Why is this a problem?

Well, the first problem is repeatability. Imagine you have a repeat client. On one project they work with one designer, and on a second a different designer. Over the course of the second project, the new designer will make recommendations based both on research (hopefully) and their style. But their style doesn’t quite match that of the designer the client worked with last time, so something doesn’t jive.

Depending on the client’s attentiveness, they may pick up on it. The client didn’t hire each designer on their own, they hired the agency. One agency. Why two different answers?

Often, where I’ve seen this play out is in deliverables. Sure most teams, agencies, consultancies, etc have templates, but often a designer has some say about what information and contents to include and how.

So again, a client engages with the same agency for two or more projects, with some of the same deliverables listed in each of them. But because each project has a different designer, each with their own approach and philosophy, those deliverables come out quite a bit different.

And trust me, these things happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard about it. And I’ve felt it.

The second problem is, of course, identity. It’s great to be able to build a strong brand on the work you’ve done. Or, more appropriately, the output of the work you’ve done. Because very often, that’s what people are looking at and remembering. But more and more now, we talk about pulling back the covers and talking about our processes; about what kind of thinking went into something and how decisions were made. And holy f**k, if that’s not important. But it is friggin’ hard to build an identity based on these things when there can be so much variation between the people actually doing the work.

So what’s the answer to these challenges?

Well, most often, what I see is groups trying to lock shit up. Deliverables become so locked in that if you want to include something not already there or change something, you’re shit outta luck.

And processes become so blanket-based that designers begin struggling. Because either they’re forced to do things that don’t fit with their approach (which would allow them to produce better results) or they’re kept from doing the added things they think the project needs, because the process doesn’t allow for it. Everything just becomes this pre-defined, step-by-step, fill-in-the-blanks, assembly line of design.


Recently, Ryan Carson wrote a post titled Hitting 40 Employees And Going Vanilla on his observations of teams genericizing things as they get bigger. He doesn’t cite differences in style as a reason for this, but I think it is as much as the reasons he does cite.

The funny thing is that, when I talk about this challenge to other designers, their comments lead me to believe that they would in-fact, LOVE this vanilla, genericized mode of working. They just want it based on their style, their approach, their philosophy.

I do think that plain-vanilla is a bad path. But I also think that these differences present quite a challenge to teams. Particularly larger ones that still want to build their brand on not only the work they’ve produced, but the people producing it. Ignoring differences in the styles of the designers working under the same organization can waken or confuse that organizations identity. And increasingly what I see is individual designer’s brands becoming more recognized than that of the organization they work for.

Maybe it’s not a challenge that can ever be solved particularly well.

Maybe it’s a good thing that I often hear designers talking about what it’ll be like when they go solo or start their own firm.

Maybe breaking down large groups into individuals and smaller teams with much more cohesive identities will put a spotlight on the differences in our approaches and beliefs and lead clients to choose us based on those; not the fact that we can run a usability study with our eyes closed, crank out some nice wireframes with our hands behind our backs, or map out a site-map/task-flow/user-journey as easily a we can spell our own names.

Or maybe not.

I think that’s probably enough of my rambling for one night. Congratulations on making it to the end. Even more-so if you were able to make sense of it :)

Want to learn about Design Studio in Vegas? Sure you do!

I’m very excited to be hosting a pre-conference tutorial on Design Studio as part of this year’s annual UPA conference in Las Vegas.

Those that know me, know that two of my biggest areas of interest in design are collaboration and critique. And for me, Design Studio is the perfect blending of those two aspects.

Here’s the tutorial description:

The generation and exploration of ideas is a critical early step when designing products and services. The work done in this stage of the product’s lifecycle will help set a path for its future. It will also begin to solidify the problems and challenges the new product will and will not address.

But trouble often arises at this early stage for a number of reasons:

  • teams may lack an effective structure or process for generating ideas, falling back on the non-descript “brainstorm” session
  • various members of the team, beyond just the design team, may have their own ideas for the product.
  • there isn’t an efficient structure in place for capturing, evaluating, and eliminating ideas.
  • and more…

The Design Studio is a method for idea generation, evaluation, refinement and even elimination. It takes place in a collaborative, fast paced, interactive environment that leads to a shared understanding of the product, the problems it will address and how it will address them.

Participants in this tutorial will be presented with an idea for a potential product and a partial scenario describing how a user intends to use the product. They will then be split into teams and, through the Design Studio process, generate, evaluate, and refine their ideas for the product’s design.

Participants will be required to sketch their ideas, however no real drawing ability is necessary. If you can draw a rectangle, triangle, circle and wavy line, you have all the skills needed to illustrate your ideas.

Additionally participants will be required to provide feedback on other’s ideas and receive feedback on their own. Experience in a critique setting is a plus, but again, not at all required.

I look forward to sharing this method with you. It’s been a major component in the process I and my teammates use to approach new projects and can have long lasting benefits not just on quality of work, but on relationships and other collaborative opportunities.

If your going to be attending the conference, I hope you’ll consider attending my session. It should be a lot of fun.

And if you haven’t been thinking about attending the conference, you should. The line up looks pretty kick-ass.

See you in Vegas!

The Dardenne brothers: a great example of Experience Design at work

In my last post, I talked a bit about Experience Design. My goal with that post wasn’t to say that we should swap the term “User Experience Design” for “Experience Design”. To me, as they’re practiced, they are two very different things.

Additionally, I don’t see Experience Design as a description or label for what is designed, but rather for how something is designed.

Experience Design, is a mode in which design decisions are made. To employ it, first determine the experience you want your audience to have: What do you want them to think, feel, do, etc.? Then design whatever it is your creating in such a way that the chance someone in your audience has that experience with your product/service/whatever is maximized.

There’s no real connection between Experience Design and technology. It can be applied to most, if not all mediums and domains: fashion, architecture, presentation design, environmental design, and on and on…

I spent a good portion of my time in school studying to be a filmmaker and animator. When I turned to web design and eventually digital product design, I never lost my interest in film. I enjoy examining the filmmaking process, it’s tools and techniques in comparison to the ways we work and craft things in the digital space. As I see it, good filmmaking is a perfect example of Experience Design at work.

Last Friday, the NPR show All Things Considered aired a segment on the Dardenne brothers, French filmmakers known for their narrative style and winning a number of awards. Last year their latest film The Kid with a Bike won won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

The segment is short, but in it the Dardennes describe a bit about how they construct their stories and set up shots all in service of eliciting certain thoughts and feelings in their viewers. Give it a listen and then think about how you or your team make design decisions for any given project. What are the factors influencing those decisions? Is it about task completion? Is it about emotion, behavior, etc? A combination of both?

I plan to write and talk a lot more about film in future posts. This blog seems like as good an excuse as any to focus more of my time on that particular interest of mine. If you’re interested in the topic, and in particular its parallels to Experience Design and Interaction Design check out this video of my lightning talk at Interactions 11.

Adam Connor: Applying Film Making Tools to Interaction Design from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

I don’t believe in UX Design.

For a while now I’ve held the belief that UX Design doesn’t really exist, or more to the point shouldn’t. I’ve shared this belief a few times and gotten less than friendly reactions, so I’ve been keeping it to myself lately. But recent events have made me want to get it off my chest, so bear with me…

Users have experiences.

People have experiences all the time. Life is one giant experience that our brains break down, dividing moments into those that are memorable and those that aren’t and metaphorically “tagging” them as pleasant, painful, sad, exciting, etc.

I’m not arguing against that at all. What I’m talking about here is that User Experience Design doesn’t exist.

Reason 1: Users’ experiences are built on EVERYTHING.

An individual’s experience when using a product is affected by just about everything that went into making that product: the decisions on what functionality to include, how they work, how they look, how they’re built. As such, it’s important to recognize that everyone who was involved in the product’s creation had a responsibility to optimize that product for the desired experience.

Yet look at how we often set up our teams and organizations. We have our visual designers, developers, content writers/strategists, researchers… and UX designers. To organize our skill sets in a way that would give weight to the notion that one group in this list holds the responsibility for the user’s experience is counterproductive.

Reason 2: UX Designers often don’t define experiences.

Some will argue that there is a strategic component that the UX Designer is responsible for and that this is why they get the title. The UX Designer should be defining the experiences they want users to have.

I don’t necessarily disagree. I do believe in an approach to design called “Experience Design” (described at the end of this post) in which experience definition is the first step in designing.

But in most of the teams I’ve observed, this never happens. The UX team immediately dives into figuring out things like interface components, layouts, sitemaps and task flows. These things are critical, yes. But to say that UX design is the definition of how things are organized and how users will interact with them is inaccurate.

As I mentioned above, the user’s experience is built on much more than that. And besides, if UX Designers are just doing IA and IxD work, why aren’t we calling them that?

Reason 3: It’s not “not visual design”.

We seem to have let “Design” get away from us.  More and more often, when I hear people say “I’m a UX designer” it seems quite apparent that one thing they’re trying to communicate is: “I’m not a visual designer”.

It’s clear that for most of the general population “design” translates to “prettification” and I understand where the desire to distance ourselves from that idea comes from.

Having labels to differentiate between things is exactly why they exist, but I can’t help feeling that by bucketing people under the label “UX” Design, we are allowing a misunderstanding of what design really is to continue.

Design is problem-solving, plain and simple. It is the creation of a solution aimed at achieving a specific outcome/goal (or a set of them). It can be done consciously or subconsciously. The fact that making things look nice is what most people think of when they hear “design” does not change what it is, it just means we’ve done a bad job at making what it actually is clear.

Reason 4: It’s not about technology.

Another argument I hear often is that the “UX” in the UX Design label signifies that we’re working in technology, designing digital products and services. But how can that be?

Use of any product or service, physical, digital or otherwise, results in an experience. The term “user experience” doesn’t help identify us as working in the digital space at all.

Reason 5: We’re not doing anything new.

Great designers, regardless of the types of things they design, have always understood the importance of experience, and of understanding who will be using their product and in what context that use will occur. None of this is new.

What we’ve done is take these concepts and methods and expose them to people working in the digital space. A space that was very immature with regard to how to design well.

Why was it so immature? The space is an easy one to get into. It doesn’t take much access to a computer, some software and maybe an internet connection. And most of the people coming into the space have no real background in “design”. Think about it. Marketers, graphic designers, computer science and info tech specialists… none of these areas of study focus on the creation of a product or service.

What Jesse James Garrett and others credited with the introduction of UXD did was expose people working in technology to some of the concepts and considerations that are needed for designing well. They did this under the label UX and it stuck. But it wasn’t really anything new. We owe them a great deal for opening so many people’s eyes, but it’s time to let the label go.

I once saw Dan Saffer tweet something along the lines of “You can replace 99% of the instances in which people use the label “UX Design” with just “Design” and the meaning is exactly the same.” I completely concur. What we’re doing is just design. Let’s accept that and stop trying to separate ourselves here.

Experience Design does exist.

Now, after putting my reasoning out there, I want to come back and say that I do believe in “Experience Design”. And no, there is more to it than just dropping the word “user”.

Experience Design is a mode of making design decisions. In it you first capture the experience you want people to have with a service or product. There are tons of ways to do this: writing out scenarios, comics, journey maps, anything that allows you to articulate how someone feels, behaves, thinks, etc as they interact with your product.

From here you make your design decisions like:

  • What functionality should be included?
  • What should the interface look like?
  • What should the tone of content be?

… and so on.

Note that these decisions aren’t just IA and IxD decisions. They are ALL decisions that affect the individual having the experience. They can be visual design decisions, content decisions, development and infrastructure decisions, etc.

Now some people working under the title UX Design operate in this way, but many do not. As I mentioned before, most of the people I’ve met spend little to no time defining the experience before diving into the interface.

Also, please note that I’m not saying that as designers we can specify that a particular individual will have a specific experience when using a product. There are too many variables beyond our control for this. What I’m talking about is the optimization of a product’s design so that for most people in its audience, most of the components of the desired experience are elicited.

DTDT matters.

OK, so looking over what I’ve laid out, I can see that many people will see this as a semantic argument. I get that, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

What we call things is important. It’s critical in our ability to communicate well. Many of challenges we face in our various communities and societies stem from the fact that when we talk, we make agreements and arrangements because we’ve used the same terms and labels assuming they mean the same things to all of us. But then we walk away and do things differently, because to each of us, those terms and labels meant something a little different.

So yes, this is a DTDT argument I’m making. Love me or hate me for it, but I think it’s important.

So that’s my thinking. My goal here is not to discredit any of the work people working as UX Designers are doing. It is all important. Nor am I trying to call anyone a liar/scammer/con-artist or whatever. I’m merely trying to say that the label “UX Design” is not meaningful or needed.

As I mentioned, recent events (including some new goals I’ve set for my career path) have lead me to want to put this out there. I’m glad to see that others like Peter Merholz are thinking similar things. Honestly, it’s scary to be of the opinion that the community you’re a part of is based on a falsehood. I’m happy I’m not alone in it.