Success Stories

Success is a difficult thing. What exactly does it mean? Rising to the top, or getting what you want? Having respect for your achievements? Whatever it means, it’s a regular expression in The Netherlands. You know, that funny place sometimes referred to as Holland, where, as they say goodbye, they wave and say, ‘Success!’ Now, I’ve seen it happen occasionally in other places, but never with the same degree of bitter humor or comical irony. Whatever it actually means, the Dutch seem to suggest, ‘Success… it’s a new thing.’

The Dutch are, historically, very good designers, seeing design as a facet of their culture. Like architecture, design is a public necessity and a purveyor of improvement (or ironic comments on improvement). So, when something becomes improved, like the design of an interface, it is a success, but it’s still only a stepping stone to the next improvement. This idea hints at the problem with success stories. They capture the moment very well, but lead to the feeling that you have reached the end of the improvement, when quite regularly it is the opposite–you have simply just stepped a little farther towards a relatively unknown goal.

Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge[1] does an excellent job of revealing the people and the work behind many of the most important interactive products of our time and discussing their impact on the field of interaction design. The products with stories in this book have dead simple design approaches behind them and should give us pride as designers, knowing that the best things out there have come from a relatively painless approach. We should be honest, however. This isn’t the whole story, as most of these products come from the efforts of multiple people, from integrating the opinions of the general public, to copying other designs, and, in fact, almost always some combination of all these things.

While it’s a great read, this book might lead you to believe otherwise, slightly, as it is biased towards the perspectives and histories of a few ‘successful’ designers, and not the entire output of any given design culture, never mind the much larger international culture of interaction design. One of the central themes is summarized early on in the book saying that the core skills of design are synthesis, understanding people, and iterative prototyping. While most designers can agree that this statement is very insightful, especially coming from Stu Card, one of the computer science brains at Xerox Parc in the seventies, it doesn’t take into account simple influences like access to production lines, distribution, backing, and the aforementioned. In that light, the statement comes off like a sales pitch to gain access to things that are necessary, but only relevant when you are already part of the industrial complex.

Still, a huge amount of valuable information lies in this tome, and the book should go on your shelf for a resource if nothing else. Be forewarned that there is a certain amount of social network back patting and ‘Apple Glorification’ in this book that is kind of scary. I’m a Mac user, always have been, but not because it is the supreme operating system design, but because it is slightly better, if that, than the only other major competitor on the market.

Now, not to get strung into the old debate, Designing Interactions does a good job of summarizing how the current mouse and windows operating system came to be. It does not provide tons of insight into what else was happening at that time. I’d like more stories from ‘the innovative seventies’, and how some of those ideas might have been able to help us if they had evolved. We all know we could use a period of cultural R&D like that in this field again, especially without the computer science (CS) focus. If you’re looking for a book that tells a bit more, check out Howard Riengold’s, Tools for Thought[2].

When pining for a period of innovation without the CS focus, I’m not saying that pure ‘design talent’ can solve all design problems, though it definitely helps, as you’ll see by reading the stories in Designing Interactions. The problem is that designers (through agencies, firms, shops, and individuals) are only responsible for a very small percentage of the designs out there, leaving many to be designed, by other means, technical, industrial, or other random approaches. As a result, most people get rare access to “decent” design.

Perhaps this is just a numbers game for establishing creative organizations. If there were more creative approaches out there, the market would reap the rewards and the creative approaches would prove their worth. As that has yet to be proven (or “proves” impossible), perhaps we should shift into a more creative approach?

To turn the coin on it’s head, before I get too strong minded about creative approaches, as much as that design is indeed an art form, design also has too strong a focus on the notion of “the elite,” and Designing Interactions certainly reflects that. To be part of true public awareness anyway, like in countries like the Netherlands, design requires a certain amount of separation from the industrial complex, or at least from the companies that are fixated on it. Creative development seems more about the culture in which it is created, and less about developing the best products for the highest bidder.

The book tends to be agreeable to this principle on average, including some examples of more responsible people designing for the culture they live in, not for “the future” or “the market.” Three examples in particular shed light on how design could be done, how the technology industry is indeed very backwards, and how most of us just twiddle our thumbs when it comes to creating making decent and responsible products.

Purple Moon, for those unaware, was a very innovative research project-turned-games company, led by Brenda Laurel, a guru in the interaction communities. Most innovative about the company was its focus on a completely untapped market in the IT industry in general, young girls. For that part, it was successful. Even its crash–like so many other decent dotcom era projects–fails to negate real success.

Not only did the Purple Moon empire have a huge member base, it was the first successful product, in perhaps the history of computing, with the young female market. In some ways, we’re actually talking about the Facebook of it’s time for little girls. To put it more bluntly, Purple Moon was the only product out of Silicon Valley, in it’s history, that would have appealed to any of the young mothers I know today. It’s a shame and a disgrace that nothing even remotely along these lines has been substantially perused since.

Another example of a responsibility-based project, in this book, is some of the work that the Live|Work outfit out of London put together. They focus on Service Design, looking at the ecologies of interactive systems, how things like banking and automobiles effect our everyday lives, and looking at solutions to some of the problems that these larger systems have in terms of interaction.

Live|Work thinks above and beyond everyday products and looks at the systems that those products operate within. Moggridge highlights one project, an automobile network for the UK, where new fuel-efficient models of cars, the Fiat Multi+, would be released on more of a licensing model, than an ownership model. Seeing the infrastructure realities of the automobile in Europe, particularly the cities, this project entailed working with the Italian manufacturer and the UK government to implement a more cost effective model of transportation, resulting in a more sustainable impact on the culture and the overall ecology surrounding it.

Another story revolves around something more elegant and well-designed than even the iPod. For an Epson “conceptual design” project, a group of design researchers at Ideo Tokyo created a set of printers more like furniture than appliances, more like tables and shelves than objects typically sitting on top of them. One printer even simply had a sheet draped over it, so that the printout slid out from underneath–very elegant and mysterious. The Epson project exemplifies an exercise where the focus is not on the technology, but the aesthetic impact on its resident environment.

Projects like this uncover that people’s unsaid desires. They would actually like to have printers like these. Less than “better designed,” “more elegant,” “fancy,” or even “Japanese,” we simply enjoy looking at these artifacts. They may even be “presentable” even and would make the most elegant computer (including a Macintosh) look robotic and foreign. Something hard-edged lies in our current technology, something unfamiliar. Projects like this showcase the potential of comfort with technology. As things become more ubiquitous, the need to create devices that are unobtrusive and familiar will be a governing factor.

While reading another story about the Will Wright and the making of SimCity, I overheard someone sitting next to me in the cafe say, “He makes nice scones.” I wondered to myself, can this guy behind this video game make decent scones? While he might be able to, would he share the recipe? Should we just ask him how it was done, or is it a “family recipe” secretly handed down through the generations? As Wright says in the book, SimCity is not one of those stupid shoot-up games. Perhaps it’s a valuable contribution to society then. Why not let other people know how it’s done, like those tasty scones? Or at least give us the basic ingredients.

This last thought implies the real problem that Moggridge works to reveal. I feel, though, that it is far too subtle in it’s approach to really “hit the nail on the head.” The primary theme of this book, other than the success stories of our favorite collectibles, is how most of the most popular designs were created with a “popular approach,” by an individual drawing on a napkin, guiding a secretary to imagine, to fantasize the ideal text editor on a blank monitor, chatting informally in the hallway, or packing up and going somewhere else where they were willing to listen. Just like cooking scones, these are everyday, ordinary scenarios, and that’s how great design is created. This book does a wonderful job of showing how success stories are just regular accounts.

For me, at least, with the success stories of the most creative companies out there, like Ideo, the focus lies in blending the business process with the creative. Even at these design-driven shops, they tend to lean heavily toward the process and not the creative as the real explanation of the work, or at least it’s value. There just aren’t many completely creative focused interaction design organizations out there. There are a ton of research, design, analytical, and technological driven organizations, all blending their offerings with creative to an extent, but only an extent. In this light, Moggridge paints a relatively pretty picture of a new wave of possibilities by showing that success is born not out of a process, but happens organically like everything else.

For all practical purposes, Designing Interactions is about Ideo and its connections to Silicon Valley, with the occasional Tokyo or MIT connection. The subtlety ends up being only partially gratuitous, with the connections thrown in for what seems to be a comparison. It’s an important book in that it bridges a relatively huge gap in understanding between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world in terms of what we should be doing with technology. Moggridge does a great job of bridging that gap by focusing on the projects at MIT, which have over the years resembled a lot of what the labs, artists, and design communities outside of North America consider to be part of interaction design.

While this book has the histories of Apple, hyperlinks, Google, SimCity, I-Mode, the iPod, the Palm Pilot, laptops and tablets, the main question that I feel this book stirs up is, “How are we going to reflect our culture with all this technology?”

From reading these success stories, my answer is, “We can’t represent our culture if the creation of all of our artifacts is done in secret.” Most cultures take part in the design of their handicrafts, their instruments, tools, utensils, equipment, toys and decorative artifacts, but what are we doing with technology? Quite the opposite.

Designing Interactions gives access to a very detailed and adept summarized history of commercial interaction design. It’s an invaluable resource to anyone who wants to know what happened to get us to this point, especially with the computer interfaces. But, again, it does beg the question to be answered, “Why did these few people have such an effect, something that more designers producing more varying designs could have had?”

To end with a final thought is based on an old expression, nature never produces the exact same thing twice. Should we all not be working to achieve this state of natural variation and symbiosis? We’ll not get there focusing just on success stories or processes, but we can certainly learn how they can help us feel confident in our own methods.

fn1. Moggridge, Bill. “Designing Interactions”:http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10934. MIT Press; 2007. Buy from: “MIT Press”:http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10934 | “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Interactions-Bill-Moggridge/dp/0262134748/boxesandarrows-20

Design Is Rocket Science

I remember reading those Scientific American magazines when I was a kid. I liked them because the design of the magazine was funky, almost a 50’s image brought into the 80’s. It had a flair for interjecting human qualities, humor, lifestyle issues, even cosmetic thinking, in a way that no other ‘serious magazine’ really did. I, like so many other people, did not read it or even just look through it, for the amazing scientific breakthroughs that they reported, but because it was well designed. So, for me, it wasn’t a science magazine, it was good design, and that was rocket science.

“Rocket Science” is one of those expressions that conjures up a lot of thoughts, but mostly it means something is incredibly smart, basically breaching the impossible. Now, I find “The Impossible” breathtakingly exciting, the idea of something not being able to happen just somehow thrills me to bits. For example, it really makes me tick that it’s practically impossible to design a reasonably easy to use, or aesthetically interesting, computer interface. But, there are a thousand good suggestions on how to get started on such an endeavor this in this book.
“Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction”:http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470018666.html [1] is cunningly released at a time when acceptance of Interaction Design as a discipline is reaching a critical mass. The book precipitates a huge turn in the creation of interactive technologies toward the more research/creative or human-centric model, approaching the subject of this change from different angles and illuminating historical insights.

The concept that practical research leads the way to good design is a good thing, but Interaction Design misses an opportunity, in some ways, by highlighting so many decent designs from only a research or technology-driven perspective. I never really understood how the field of Human-Computer Interaction is scientific anyway, so I’m glad to see the subtitle, “Beyond Human-Computer Interaction,” on the book, meaning a move toward “design and creative” in the discipline from a focus on hard-nosed research. It always struck me as an art form, to design computer software, and not a viable practice for using measurements and methodologies. Call me biased, but I feel science does a lot of legwork in trying to justify itself in the design of computer interfaces. Whereas, most people understand that designing a screen interface requires a creative approach.

The book sheds light on this aspect of HCI being a creative endeavor, but stays within the realm of the research, or semi-scientific, approach. Even as a social science, the dominant belief HCI research as the most effective way to design interfaces leaves too little room for real creative design talent. This book serves as a sign of the times by reflecting on this outlook.

It’s not that research isn’t appreciated in the design world (especially the findings), but my position is that some results could be found through sheer design approaches. The majority of successful applied designs include the conceptual, aesthetic, and semantic as well as input from the research-based approaches in this book. In my mind, however, sometimes the results of the research can be talked out in a few good casual conversations with other designers about the technology, placement, and end users.

The book does highlight quite a few good approaches that I use as a practitioner, so it certainly covers the reality of doing interaction design. In fact, every possible ethno-social-human-factors method under the sun is in this book, and it would be impossible to integrate many of them, even partially, into a real world project. It’s an excellent reference book for the shelf, and I know that I’ll refer to it often, even if I can’t use every approach in my projects.

It would be ideal to be able to use all of the information here. However, the reality of everyday design work is such that most of this research only really occurs in academia, amongst the most dedicated usability professionals, or within the lab environment. Unfortunately, these environments are not well known for their ability to produce interactions that are regarded as aesthetically pleasing by the general public. That said, I have employed a number of these approaches and have heard of almost all of them being used in the field, just likely not with the degree of formality that practitioners of traditional HCI tend to expect.

As a textbook for third or fourth year university students, graduate students may find parts of Interaction Design very interesting. It firmly plants the history of HCI accessibly for design students and takes the edge off of the more rigorous image that has accompanied user interface design research in the past. So, it’s a great book if you’re studying, working with a university or college, or just want to get up to snuff.

With the majority of material backed by research, it should be noted that this book is not light reading. While the approaches themselves are typically not about doing extensive research, an element of practicality pervades the discussions. Some students might find this attitude misleading, especially if the course they are on has more of a creative slant. But, if that’s your angle, there are tons of activities and processes in this book which will keep you learning for months.

Science and art can be combined wonderfully, especially when they are used in flexible and semantically meaningful ways. Students who read this book should be given the freedom and persuasion to integrate these techniques into their own approaches, so that they may avoid getting bogged down by the practicality of these methods. Products in the real world have used research and other practical approaches to create a more humane final design, and this book has a smattering of these example projects and products. Keep in mind that a personal touch helps humanize these approaches to fit them into creative design projects.

Interaction Design provides a lot of examples of successful design and will prove a great reference for the more pragmatic designers out there. The rational bent will help designers looking for explanations as to what it takes to do something well to why certain things work (e.g. iconography, different types of analysis).

The background information behind almost every approach and model out there is included, but alas, only a few of the examples are, unfortunately, elegant. They are research projects, so, they are not meant to be elegant. You might say that these types of projects are the stand-by of practitioners who recognize a problem, but who are not prepared to think of a more acceptable and effective approach. While the end design serves the purpose, unfortunately it does not do so with the inventiveness and personal value that shines clearly in products like Google Maps or the iPod Click Wheel.

Some examples of such technological determinism:
* The cascading menu: It’s an obviously difficult method of interacting with a system, but the researchers, developers and the people who put together the operating system SDK did not spend the requisite time inventing a more elegant approach.
* Speech interfaces: The reality of interacting with the system pales in comparison to the theory or the research behind it. Some companies now exploit this flaw by merely promise customers no phone trees or that calls will be answered in 2 rings or less.
* Pen-based (gestural) interfaces: Handwriting recognition software worked a lot better on the Newton than even the Palm OS, never mind the current offering on the Tablet PC.

In some ways, Interaction Design the practice is a field that seems obsessed with process over product. Experience has taught me that if overall the team lacks creative and artistic skills, the product is doomed to become unfriendly or inelegant. Essentially it boils down to politics, even within the smallest team. If there isn’t a general “agree-to-agree” mentality and a good amount of trust in the more creative members of the team, no amount of process, or developing a new one, will help make products that the customers want.

I approach the field from a design perspective, meaning two parts visual/creative, one part analytical public needs representative. When reading scientific books, journals, textbooks, I usually glance through them, looking for something inspirational, something logical, something that would make sense to the analytical side of my brain. I’m interested in the possibilities of the approaches, how they will affect my projects, and how they help me breach the impossibilities of science. I find it amazing how research and science struggle for elegance unless they also bring creative parts to bear.
Interaction Design, the book, presents many valuable approaches and background on the industry. Still, one should realize that learning this material is like learning to play the piano. You can follow many leads and avenues, especially in terms of extending your practice, but you’ll need creativity and artistry to exercise them well. Buy this book to support that good work, because you can never have enough background knowledge to do your job well.

fn1. Helen Sharp, Yvonne Rogers, and Jenny Preece; “Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Edition”:http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470018666.html; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2007.

Zen and the Art of IA

New Web 2.0 interaction design can offer a lot of new suggestions for easier interactions, good use of white space and other glaring design solutions to the typically very busy space of information architecture. But, if you practice IA well, including some new Web 2.0 techniques, you can begin to create mental space as well as white space. Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design, a new New Riders book by Robert Hoekman, Jr., is a great place to find out how much mental space can be offered by your systems.

We, the people, as users of these architectures, experience the downside of not having enough peace in the process of interacting with a poorly designed system. With almost a billion computers on earth and millions of unsatisfying interactions every minute, we are looking at massive amount of unintuitive interactions.

Where Are My Glasses?

Compare it with looking through a bag for a pair of glasses, while this might be one of the more frustrating moments of your entire day, it still has a logical conclusion, “glasses” or “no glasses.” The new reasoning here, when interacting with computers is that you have many other possible answers, finding the top half of the glasses, someone else’s glasses, things that think they are glasses, or having the bag just disappear on you.

If you lose your glasses, there aren’t many conclusions for outcome of this “scenario” in the real world. The glasses are either there or not. Within the computer the list is potentially unlimited, and most of the conclusions are mentally exhausting. Computers are tiring, constantly offering you options you don’t want and providing you with answers that don’t make any sense. More to the point, computers are designed to be complicated, much more complicated than a bag and glasses, hence, they aren’t designed to be obvious.

Web 2.0 UI for Dummies

In the current computer experience, there is a certain lack of “the design providing the answers,” something which is repeatedly addressed in Designing the Obvious, by Robert Hoekman, Jr. His bold use of language addresses not only the frustrations users experience in having an unrelaxed state of interaction, but also rightfully condemns the people behind these unhealthy and unintuitive user experiences. The book covers how to design a system that will tell the user if it has or doesn’t have “glasses” in it, and also how to prevent the computer from telling the user all sorts of other irrelevant information.

This book is very honest, amusing, straightforward, and extremely relevant. Besides providing strong a framework for designing more “obvious” applications, it also serves as a “Web 2.0 UI for Dummies” guidebook. Hoekman provides great Web 2.0 working examples, details what works about these new applications, discusses how they are successful, and explores what the people behind them have to say about their designs.

Diagnosis: Be More Mental

Reading this book was a pleasure. The amount of critical thinking and the solid diagnosis of the field of software design has to be admired. In fact, writing a book like this takes what I call, “balls.” Few designers out there can honestly say that they haven’t had some of these thoughts or wanted to say the things that are in this book. While Hoekman may be occasionally overstating the need to convince clients and sell services, in my opinion, he makes some brilliant conclusions and eye opening metaphors, such as the notion of links behaving like doors to other rooms, and the idea that “bad design” is actually ‘rude design.’ His eye for successful interactions and his approach in communicating what’s essential really sets the tone for this sort of detail-level design in the world of Web 2.0 applications.

One of his main thoughts in the book is the criticism of Implementation Models and his support for Mental Models when designing a product. While not in the book, a prime example is the Wacom input tablet, a direct representation of the typical interaction humans have had with information for thousands of years. Wacom is a translation of Japanese, Wa for Harmony, and Com for Computer. There is a strong movement towards more harmony with Web 2.0, and Designing the Obvious is a very good reference for anyone hoping to create more harmony in their designs.

Zen and the “Practice”

Zen is the art of practicing meditation in everything you do and existing solely in a mental space. Envisioning surroundings as full of peace creates an image of actions as poetry. If information architecture is poetry, it gives just meaning, placement, and timing to an overall message or theme. The flow of numbers, letters, images and sounds together form a medium for the mind, a zen space of constant understanding.

Another key concept in this book is the notion of designing for a minimal set of options or fluid interaction, another zen concept. While I don’t think that this is the future for all software development, he is likely right in leading most applications down this path, away from desensitizing the visitors with featuritis. He gives many methods for dropping the unnecessary, saying that “less is more, so aim low.” This notion of the minimal is hugely important within the teachings of zen, turning into the idea that you channel the energy, or features, that are interesting to you as a user.

Eating, Not Thinking About It

Hoekman also reiterates the important idea of using your own software regularly (referred to as eating your own dog food). I prefer to think of it as turning your own arrows into flowers. A long standing metaphor in the Buddhist philosophies that you can take any arrow aimed at you and turn it into a flower; I think that if you are shooting arrows out at someone else you can also turn them into flowers. As you use the software, Hoekman says to drop anything that stands out as being too difficult, unnecessary, or in the way. Let those petals fall where they may.

The book concentrates on the activity and not the concept. Just like this article’s namesake novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the activity of fixing and riding bikes is the real heart of the book, not the concept of looking inward, or any of the other meditation concepts. Interestingly, we remember the story of activity from Designing the Obvious, not all the concepts that were tied into it along the way. I can only surmise that Hoekman recommends a focus on activity because that is the most conscious of the interactive processes. While there is a huge movement in the design world regarding concept driven designs, I recommend this book to any design-oriented person as an eye opener to activity-based design.

Effective De5Sign

Hoekman provides some very interesting insights to the Japanese world of industrial design, including the activities of Kaizen and the 5S approach which are very successful in terms of creating appreciated designs in Japan. Kaizen is “change for the better” or “improvement,” and is most easily done in iterations. Kaizen was originally used as a management technique and is credited as the reason Toyota consistently builds high quality and long lasting vehicles.

The 5S approach was originally developed for the manufacturing industry, and represents these five words, and their translations: seiri (sort), seiton (straighten), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize) and shitsuke (sustain). In brief, 5S aims at reduction and refinement, both essential elements in creating long lasting and sustainable designs.

Implied, Not Stated

One thing I wish he mentioned more would be the notions of talent and skill. While he comes from a development background, Hoekman obviously has a great deal of inherent ability to explain what works and what doesn’t work surrounding these Web 2.0 applications. What amazes me, and not just with this book, is the lack of explaining design talent and or skill, other than just making case studies or glorifying the design’s end result.

A perfect example is how Hoekman gives a lot of kudos to a bunch of 2.0 teams, particularly 37signals, and quotes them explaining their process in the book. While in many cases this does lead to an impression of these companies being very talented and skilled, it seems to me that they shroud this is process and technique. Hoekman does a fair enough job at giving compliments to the actual applications though, that the skill and talent behind them does indeed shine through. A chapter about these facets would be greatly appreciated.

Springboard

All in all, Designing the Obvious is an amazing book, crafted together from years of experience in understanding applications and deep insight into how the latest and greatest Web 2.0 applications are designed to be obvious. From countless examples and an amazing amount of techniques, both before and during design, Hoekman provides a wonderful platform from which more amazing, and dynamic applications can be built. If you are at all in the market for designing web based applications, especially Web 2.0 applications, this book is hands down a necessity, particularly for those who are still meditating on their last purchase.

If you like what Clifton says here, buy “Designing the Obvious”:http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Obvious-Common-Approach-Application/dp/032145345X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178611116&sr=1-1/boxesandarrows-20 now.

*About the book*

Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design
by Robert Hoekman Jr.
Paperback, 264 pages
New Riders Press, (October 2006)
ISBN: 032145345X

Architecting Our Profession

“…there is definitely not enough reliance on the information architect as a professional who can cope with the details and design challenges of creating a complex system, both for the process and for the interface.”I would like to encourage the community to talk about the need for professional networks within the information architecture field, especially as it relates to creating successful software and information systems. And, I would like to compare our needs in the field of IA with the systems that have been used in other areas to determine if we can develop an appropriate support system in moving towards specialization in our profession.

The change within the interface design process over the past five to ten years has coincided with an increasing number of large companies refining an industrial style model of design instead of focusing on specialization or interaction sustainability through design accuracy. As a result of the overriding strategy, many smaller companies emulate the corporate model but find that it is indeed not sustainable; especially if they want to design appropriate interfaces and continue working within the respected boutique and agency models. This model of simply acquiring a larger IA strategy needs to change in order to give IA a place on the whole market and to allow professional networks to develop.

For instance, Company A has created a large international software application, which meets the needs of very specific market segments; the application actually has to be in a boat on the other side of the world and represented in a different language. Meanwhile, Boutique A has a very similar model of designing applications, not because it’s practical for them but because “that’s the way it’s done elsewhere.” However, the boutique only provides design, technical support and some software customization to existing customers who are within a 100-kilometer radius! This is sort of like comparing apples to oranges, but it’s more like encouraging apples to grow on orange trees. It’s attempting to implement a model of business where introducing a scaled down process leads to ineffective results.

This is the real hiccup in the current User Centered Design and Information Architecture processes; they are not really all that scaleable. Company A is driven by forces that Boutique A doesn’t need. Boutique A is a professional service firm in its own right, but it doesn’t need to work within such a large-scale model, especially not simply because of excess field pressure. In fact, customers would most likely benefit if the models were reversed as Company A typically avoids the simplicity of providing a local service like the one offered by Boutique A.

In my experience, this is the reason that projects fail in information architecture and interaction design: it seems that many companies and individuals are not insuring that they use a process which suits them. There is not enough rationing of responsibility to contractors, and therefore no appropriate delegation to specialists who can develop an appropriate model of IA for each situation. This means that there is definitely not enough reliance on the information architect as a professional who can cope with the details and design challenges of creating a complex system, both for the process and for the interface. This is the main reason IAs are unable to blueprint systems that survive the passing of time or the pressures of an evolving market, in other words, there is a round-peg in a square-hole problem here which needs to be addressed. As IAs, we aren’t playing the role of architect, artist, or even of the contractor, but the role of design team member, using common techniques on specialized problems.

Where do we find the solution? It’s likely in needs of smaller businesses and organizations. In order to make the needed room for these areas to influence the field of information architecture; we need for them to rely on or to develop their own specialists and contractors, individuals who are professionals with the insight and experience to understand the entire project, and to create new models of IA for each project. What we are missing however, is the support system to protect, establish and promote those who chose to contract out specialist needs.

In order to establish this sort of specialist and contractor system, we should understand what has worked this way in other industries, especially those that rely heavily on interactive technology, such as TV, film, music as well as video game and software development. These industries all have contractor associations and specialist houses, both of which translate well to the IT industry. In our market, business needs shift and product releases are quite sporadic, and so contracting associations and specialist houses, or firms or studios, could be the answer to providing IA services that actually reflect the needs of each project. We need a system within IA where individual professionals are given the authority to examine specific elements, attributes, and functions of a system as well as to architect the process involved. In essence, this would be the IA equivalent of hiring a director, or a sound engineer, or if we think about things a bit more pragmatically, contracting an architect.

This is all just a suggestion, though perhaps we should look at other models more closely in order to simplify IA processes. It is possibly the professional equivalent of giving ourselves a system for us after all these years spent figuring out what specializations to focus on. We do have the answers; all we need to do is create the infrastructure to begin to work in this way.

I suggest we look at a range of options for moving forward, with such possibilities as determining a board of local association members, establishing a union system and stewards, forming an open licensing system, or just seeking out legal specialists who can represent individuals and know the field well. We should begin to entrust our efforts to people dedicated to creating support systems within the field of IA. How we should go about structuring these support systems is something else entirely; it is something that we should discuss and determine together, moving towards making a professional field. Any comments?

Conclusion:

Design is a valued industry in many fields, with professional support systems to match. Without adequate support systems in IA we will be awkwardly bound to the current design process out of fear of improvement. The nature of software design should be integrated and brought into the design process in a much more sustainable way, and I see support systems as the only way to provide the stability needed to develop through specialization.

I’ve included a few links below; topics I consider appropriate grounding for considering specialization support within IA. Please be aware that the topic of blueprinting is only one example area where techniques and models need to be supported. The following links are given as encouragement for discussion.


Is there a model which would be the best for organizing our support systems?

Do we need professional contracts, licenses or listings?

How would professional support help blueprinting in terms of accuracy, precision or stability?


Clifton Evans is Irish Canadian. His role as an Information Architect has taken him to Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Dublin, Barcelona, Rotterdam and London to work on interfaces ranging from community-scale works to enterprise-level systems. He has co-written a book on information architecture within ecommerce development, taught and given seminars on the design of interactive systems and also works as an artist both outside and within the field. He currently works from Europe, most recently in The Netherlands, where he has continued to work on both media arts research and international interactive systems.

He looks at the world of interactive design as a playground for new opportunities, a place to be constantly creating new approaches and creating new systems of interaction. He also leads the careers initiative for interactiondesigners.com and has been an active member of the communities that helped to form the field of IA. His current personal work is involved in developing an online community for language learning and is seeking out opportunities to develop this work further. He can be contacted via CD (at) IAgency.biz

Exploring Content Filters

What if I suggested a new way of navigating an online information space? What if it was something we’ve all seen before but just never thought to use? I’m talking about subtracting away information the user doesn’t want.

Content filtering is a much more natural way of sorting through categories, especially when the majority of your content is under more than one subject.Think of a web page that has the game results from every sports game on earth, this may be a huge page, but it is somewhat conceivable. Some people might even call it helpful. As interaction professionals, we might start to think about ways to navigate or sort through the information on that page. At this point, some of you are likely thinking it needs to be organized and others are thinking it should just be put into a database.

If all those sports scores were organized into columns, maybe some users would be tempted to scroll down through the page. If those columns were fed into the page dynamically, they could be rearranged according to topics at the top of them. This technique has been seen before, there are many email programs that sort hundreds of emails by date, by sender or by subject. This is sometimes seen on the web as well, where some sites have columns of data that can be easily re-organized by clicking on one of the headings. But this technique is for short columns with small entries, it is not for pages of text with details, graphics, links and so on. But perhaps it could be.

Let’s go back to that page with the sports scores. Imagine the page now displays a subset of only the most popular games of the week, only the games that are the most popular, perhaps 20 entries. On this page, the navigation is based on the same sorting system as above but the headings are now displayed within pulldowns. Yes, pulldowns. OK, I know what you are thinking, this technique doesn’t require the pulldown pull down element, but it makes for an easy and quick example. Let’s get started.

Filtering pulldown menu for sportsThe user starts to navigate by sorting the results according to “Latest Games,” this gives them what they want at the top, as expected. But now the actual content on the page has changed to be more relevant. How did this happen? The site filtered out the information from the first page that wasn’t relevant and added more of the information that was requested.

How is this different from a standard navigation and structure?
Well, imagine the user is still looking at the “latest games” page that was just selected. Now, they select another category, such as “hockey,” but this time from an additional dropdown.

Now they have the information sorted into a new topic, one that is a combination of the two dropdowns, showing the latest hockey games. The page has gotten rid of everything that wasn’t related to hockey and now shows an overview of the latest games combined with and overview of the hockey games. Two clicks and you’re there, at your very own topic. One more selection and the site will filter the information further into something like regional information on the latest games.

But the great part is the user can quickly switch any of the categories (the region, sport or the timeframe). And they can do it without switching the other two categories. This whole process is much simpler than backtracking up the site structure to go down another branch. Plus it makes the content delivery much more personal.

BurnitBlue.com filtersHere’s another example: On BurnitBlue.com, a United Kingdom-based music portal, there is a dropdown dropdown menu system on the right hand side of the page. These dropdowns dropdowns are filled with titles that reflect the categories that visitors find important. We have all seen dropdown dropdown-based navigation before and it usually just doesn’t work very well, but in this case it works well enough to show the beginnings of content filtering. The site offers you the ability to use the dropdowns as filters for the main body content. You just pull down to your category, and the body area brings that category to the surface. While not a perfect example, in terms of consistency, and this site does a pretty good job at showing you how the initial concept works.

BurnitBlue.com headlinesThe main key to this technique is in how you display the body content. The page has to be formatted with an even representation of content within the filtered area. The Burn it Blue BurnitBlue website uses the term “Headlines’ to represent this content area, but any summary of the site content would be applicable.

What is important is that the users are presented with a few examples of the content they are looking for before they navigate further. Providing this overview of the section content is essential to making content filtering work. Within the marketing departments, eyes will light up at the thought of an information architect who supports overview titles such as “Top Stories” or even “Hot Picks.” Finally, a legitimate excuse to put featured content on the main pages. In this case, advertising meets architecture with a firm handshake.

Content filtering and development
Here are a few serious applications where the content filtering techniques are applicable:

  • Developing with metadata—As more and more information is tagged with relevant metadata it becomes increasingly important to be able to cross-reference materials. Looking at the above examples, you can see that this technique is specifically for data that is labelled under more than one category
  • Devices with smaller screens—With limited screen sizes and mobile connectivity becoming a fast approaching reality, we are in desperate need of navigation techniques that will save space while not hindering the interaction process. Using navigation elements that save space is of prime importance, this use of new menu systems or condensed navigation might just do the trick.
  • Representing the data architecture—This technique represents the data architecture much more closely than categorical navigation. Having the navigation system more reflective of the data structure allows for more rapid and iterative development.

Content filtering and horizontal navigation
To further the strength of content filtering I would like to explain how it relates to other forms of navigation. Typically, navigation systems can either be seen as being either horizontal or vertical navigation, meaning they usually either delve into the content or move sideways across it. For example, horizontal navigation could be thought of as a link to related content or as a link to a relevant discussion group. In comparison, I refer to elements like breadcrumbs and site categories as vertical navigation. Content filtering can be seen as a way to navigate both horizontally and vertically but its strengths lie in how it increases horizontal navigation.

BurnitBlue.com headlinesAs a visual example, think of an information space as being like a spider web. If you imagine each of the threads coming from the middle of the web as being different categories then you can think of the lines connecting them as links for traversing the site structure. With vertical forms of navigation, the user will “dive” down a content thread to find the desired content and perhaps use a horizontal thread to access related content. Using content filtering the user is given the opportunity to navigate along both types of threads as it the technique the user creates their own categories and can change those categories as they see fit.

Content filtering—conclusion
The reason why this content filtering works is because it gives the experience that the site is bringing the information to you rather than you having to search for the information somewhere in the site. It feels like you are getting rid of the stuff you don’t want, or even that you are creating your own pages.

Content filtering is a much more natural way of sorting through categories, especially when the majority of your content is under more than one subject. You might even say that this filtering technique is very similar to a Boolean query within a search engine, though it is a much more accessible user experience. It is this natural user experience that makes content filtering so accessible, the technique is reflective of our own intuitive process of elimination. Navigation techniques that mirror our natural sorting and selection processes will be more appreciated by those that work with them. Hopefully this new technique will influence your new navigation designs in becoming more reflective of our natural processes. Use it well!

Clifton Evans practices information architecture and writes on the innovations and methods of user-centred design. He has been part this industry for seven years in Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, Singapore and London. He can be reached at .