Showing posts tagged user experience

5 Characteristics of Productive, Creative Organizations

At this point, I feel it’s safe to say that most organizations are realizing the value of design to their business, customers and products in one form or another. This has lead to an overwhelming demand for design talent and many designers finding themselves in organizations whose overall understanding of design is still fairly immature.

The issue is that these organizations are looking at design as another tool or a cog that they believe can just be inserted into their existing structures and processes. And when that doesn’t work, they begin looking at the various symptoms that seem problematic and treating those, without ever realizing that the issues are rooted more deeply in their organization and culture.

As part of an agency, I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of organizations and teams of different sizes and structures and observe how people work together within them. It’s probably my favorite part of being an “outie.”

Over time I’ve noticed common characteristics of the organizations that work well together in designing and producing great products and services. There are lots of these characteristics, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on 5 underlying organizational and cultural elements I believe are key.

Note: in this post I use “product” to mean anything that the team creates, whether it be an app, website, device, etc.

Characteristic 1: They understand that design is a creative process that involves all members of the team.

Many organizations make the mistake of thinking of design as a “phase” and so they establish a list of “business requirements” and technical constraints and then hand things off to the designers for them to organize and create something from.

Members of the best teams I’ve observed understand that they are involved in a creative process together and so all participants: business, design and development are present at all stages. Everyone participates in a process of discovery, problem definition, exploration, iteration and validation.

These teams understand that in order to be successful they must collaborate and that collaboration requires transparency and mutual goals. Mandates are not just passed from one role to another. So they work together in research, observing interviews and ethnographic studies. Stakeholders don’t bounce in and out acting as some form of gatekeeper or overlord that must be pleased with the team’s offering. They participate in both the generation and critique of ideas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, as teams begin to recognize the need for collaboration, there can sometimes be a tendency to over-extend it, creating an environment of design-by-committee, where consensus must be reached for all decisions and so concessions are made to make participants happy regardless of whether they’re right for the solution.

Strong teams recognize this danger, and individual team members have a strong sense of their expertise and respect for that of their teammates, trusting in that expertise and that they are all working toward the same goals.

Characteristic 2: There is strong creative vision and directorship from whomever is leading the effort.

In creating any product or service there is a seemingly infinite number of elements and potential solutions that must be evaluated and coordinated. And because there is a larger group actively participating in the creative process, it’s guaranteed that people will have different ideas of how things should look and work.

On the strongest team’s I’ve observed, there is a individual who works to establish and communicate a vision for the solution. This vision specifies the scope and principles (characteristics) that the final solution will be composed of.

This role is not unlike the director of a film, who communicates a vision to actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. so that they may make decisions as to how their own areas of influence (characters, camera angles, sets, etc.) will work to produce the desired vision.

Also similar to film directors, these individuals often have a background in many aspects of the creative process, typically having worked as a designer, but also having an understanding of business and even development/IT.

Many teams I’ve seen lack this role or understanding. There may be a project or product owner, but often they don’t have a clear vision or haven’t been entrusted by stakeholders to establish and direct toward one. Or it may be that there is someone on the team who does have a clear vision, often a lead designer, but they aren’t put in a position where they can effectively lead.

The presence of this role, in no way means that the “director” creates the vision alone. By virtue of the first characteristic, these individuals work to establish the vision by pulling together input and ideas from across the areas of expertise on the team. At the same time, as the project progresses, and the vision is refined and further detailed, they act as the guide to determine when to build consensus and when to make executive decisions in alignment with vision, preventing an environment of design-by committee.

Characteristic 3: They don’t see design and development as two separate phases.

Teams can spend a significant amount of time defining what it is they want to have built, creating elaborate and detailed documentation to then hand off to developers for production.

This almost always proves problematic, however. The more complex the solution, the more gaps are exposed during this handoff. Additionally, this pattern treats developers as if they’re an assembly line. Which, to be honest, I find offensive.

Great teams understand that thinking and building are interdependent and intertwined. As we build something we learn more about our ideas and our solution. We see new possibilities and new questions. It’s not that there are separate thinking and building phases, but rather a continuum of fidelity that begins with brief, high level representative elements and ends with the final, real product.

As such, these teams not only get to code faster, eliminating unnecessary documentation because designers and developers are working side by side around a shared vision and mutual goals. But they also tend to have a different view of code and technology than teams that separate design and development.

Where as teams that separate the two often view code as concrete, final, slow and painful to change, successful teams treat it as just another medium; malleable, erasable, able to be discarded. They aren’t afraid of it. And they don’t look at it as a constraint, but rather a challenge. Asking themselves “How can I push these limits to create what we want?” rather than, “How can I create something that fits within these constraints.”

Characteristic 4: They budget and staff for products, not projects.

The project model is pervasive in large organizations. Someone has an idea to create or change something. They get it approved by a committee or board and are awarded some amount of money to do it in a certain amount of time. As the project continues and new ideas are raised, they’re thrown into a fictional “phase 2” that must got through the same project approval process and almost never happens. So when the current project is over the team disbands and moves on to something else and their creation is left alone until another project comes along that affects it.

What this model ignores is that the design process is ongoing in its cyclical nature. As soon as something is released to users there is an opportunity to observe, learn, and refine the design. This is the iterative process at work. The design process doesn’t stop until the product or service ceases to exist.

It isn’t to say that project teams can’t come up with great ideas and solutions. But strong organizations recognize the need, not just for long-term support of their creation, but for it’s ongoing evolution, and so they use a product model instead. Teams are assigned to a specific product or service and work continuously through the iterative process. There is no project end-date. Budgets still get calculated for certain lengths of time, but they continue on until the product or service is eliminated.

In tandem with the project model, there is a tendency in many organizations to centralize staff according to skills, establishing design and development departments. As projects arise staff from each department is assigned based on availability. Because of this, when subsequent projects for the same product come up in the future, there is no guarantee that the same staff will be assigned, and so often there are breakdowns and gaps in knowledge and understanding of product vision, which slows progress and leads to inconsistent decisions.

Centralization around skill-sets also has a tendency to create certain territorial attitudes, where individuals place higher value on their department’s priorities over the product they’re working to create. This often pits team members against each other with competing and unaligned goals.

Characteristic 5: They assemble teams based on individuals, not just skill-sets.

And finally, the best organizations I’ve observed take great care when constructing teams. It isn’t just about the skills of an individual, but also their character. Is the individual open-minded, collaborative, respective of other’s area of expertise? Can they recognize and handle conflict productively? Are they engaged and genuinely interested in the product or service they’ll be creating?

Great organizations realize that collaboration resides in the relationships that team members form and that while someone might have great ideas about interaction design, or maybe they’re god’s gift to HTML, if they can’t collaborate well with their teammates, they are going to do more harm than good.

This provides more reinforcement for creating product rather than project teams. Relationships take time to develop and in the project model, that often can’t happen effectively because of arbitrary timelines and individuals being assigned to multiple projects at once.

All of this isn’t to say, that doing these things will instantly create an effective creative organization. Nor is it to imply that making these kinds of changes is easy. By it’s very nature, culture is something that is constantly reinforced by the behaviors of the organization and its staff, and therefore changes to it require dedication and time.

But it’s important to recognize that being successful in design and creativity is not just the outcome of an addition to skill-sets. It requires a change in behavior and mindset.

What other characteristics have you observed in great creative organizations?

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.

On Art, Design & The Difference Between Them

Like many designers and artists, I’ve run into frustration with finding inspiration and motivation at times. Having spent a lot of time thinking about my creative process and the processes of other creators in order to better understand these frustrations, I’ve learned a lot about my own identity and beliefs around art and design.

These beliefs have helped me in determining where I should focus my efforts and spend my time. In order to help me clarify my thoughts and maybe help others who are dealing with similar frustrations, I thought I’d share some of my observations and how they’ve impacted my work in a series of posts.

For this first entry, let’s start with the difference between art and design.

It’s easy to find or get involved in conversations about what makes something a work of art as opposed to a work of design. And there is a wide range of nuanced interpretations of these differences. I won’t bore you with a long explanation of various ways I’ve thought about the question, rather, I’ll jump to my thoughts.

The difference: expression vs communication.

Art is about expression. Art is about the creator externalizing an idea or emotion in some form. How it is received or interpreted by an audience is immaterial. It is only the act of putting something out that is the art, the expression. Therefore, how an artist chooses to express their idea is completely up to them. They can use whatever techniques, mediums, or other approaches that they wish. Art is inherently personal in that in order to express something an individual must feel it and their own sense will inevitably carry through into whatever they create.

Design is about communication. Design is a conversation and very much dependent on the recipient of the idea clearly understanding and, in most situations, acting upon the information being presented.. The creator must make decisions based on what will or will not work to convey their “message” to the recipient.

Whereas art is impulsive, happening without analytic thought, design is methodical. In a broad sense it is the act of composing and constructing something to achieve a specific set of desired objectives when “used”.

All creative endeavors exist on a spectrum.

So now you’re thinking, “But I make art, and I put some serious thought into it.”

Of course you do. I bet most artists think seriously about what their creation is or should look like, feel like, sound like, and so on. But those thoughts have to do with what the audience perceives; What you want them to take away from your creation; what it communicates.

Creations are not binary. In other words, they are not explicitly either a work of art or a work of design. Rather creations exist along a spectrum with one end being pure art (pure expression) and the other, pure design (pure communication).


Damn. I really need to find a better way to illustrate this, huh. But hey, rainbow gradient FTW!

Examining this spectrum it becomes obvious that very little of what we create ever exists at the very end of either side of the spectrum. More often than not, artists who have managed to establish a career for themselves are strongly considering their viewers and making decisions based on how best to evoke a feeling or thought in them.

And even the most empathic, considerate designers will have their own perspective of how things could or should be, and it would be impossible for every decision they make to be 100% unbiased to those views.

Think about your own creations - how did you decide what to make or how to make it? Was it impulsive, something you just felt should be? Or was it something more methodical, a deliberate set of decisions meant to produce a reaction of some sort in someone else? More than likely there was a combination of both types of decisions throughout your process.

It is this difference between expression and communication that makes pure art impossible to judge. How can anyone judge the quality of another’s expression? Rather what happens in the art industry is the judgement of an artist’s ability to evoke thoughts within a viewer, and this has more to do with communication, whether the artist was actually attempting to deliberately communicate or just expressing themselves (this is my big issue with art criticism in general).

Let’s talk about education and craft.

Based on this understanding most art education isn’t really about art, but more about design and craft. When learning to draw, a student learns about composition, about capturing form, about light and shadow and all of this is through the lens of the effect on the viewer, about how a drawing communicates with the people looking at it. Similarly, in learning music, one learns about structure, harmony, melody, dissonance, again through the lens of their impact on the listener.

Things of this nature, however, are not arts, they’re crafts. A craft is  a combination of the techniques and medium with which something is created. The craft defines the tools and techniques used to create something.

Craftsmanship is then the degree of detail and precision with which these techniques are applied in order to produce quality in the objectives of creation. Because craftsmanship is evaluated by a viewer/user with regard to their experience with the creation, I see craftsmanship more as a component of the design-based creation than artistic-based.

A drawing student, a music student - any art student - can go on to apply their learnings in a work of art - something whose purpose is only to express something within the creator. Or they might create something that is purely meant to produce a specific effect in the audience, like drawing an image or writing a song for use in advertising a product. But more than likely, what they’ll create will be a little of both. Some elements of their creation will be a conscious or unconscious catharsis and some decisions they make will be based on how best to communicate with the audience.

Figuring this all out changed the way I work.

In figuring out my own thoughts, I’ve found why some projects are exciting to me and some aren’t. For example, when I began to try to establish myself as an illustrator, I looked for clients to draw for. I love drawing and I thought for sure this would be a way to make a career out of something I love. But I found that I struggled frequently. I thought at first it was about control, but even on the projects where the client gave me near total control I struggled.

What I learned by looking at my work was that I needed the things I was drawing to truly express something I felt. It was more about what was being expressed than control over what was being created. For this reason, I don’t do a lot of illustration for clients. And when I do, I have to make sure that it’s something I really feel strongly about.

I think it’s valuable for anyone involved in creative work (or recreation) to come to their own understanding of what things are or aren’t and why they create them. Take a step back, look at your process and patterns. By having a clearer picture of your own thoughts on the various aspects of creativity, you may find you’re able to be a stronger, more focused creator.

What are your thoughts on art and design? Have these thoughts had an influence on your art or design work?

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!

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.