IDEA 2009: An Interview with Thomas Malaby

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2009 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Director of Events and Marketing for the IAI, I fill a variety of roles and lead the charge for the IDEA Conference this year, as well as get to Interview the IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Greg Corrin in this case).

For this interview, I was able to ask a few questions with Thomas Malaby. Malaby is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has a forthcoming book titled "Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life" from Cornell University Press.

You recently finished a book about Second Life and online communities titled “Making Virtual Worlds” (Cornell University Press). Can you describe how your research process was structured for this writing effort? How does one conduct ethnographic research in online communities effectively?

The rise of digital technologies poses many challenges and opportunities for ethnographic research. Because this project centered on the makers of Second Life, Linden Lab in San Francisco, to a certain extent the familiar form of face-to-face ethnographic participant observation and interviewing was possible. But nonetheless even within the company an enormous amount of communication occurred through technologically mediated channels, including multiple email lists, wikis, an IRC channel, instant messaging, plus all of the tools for communication found within Second Life itself, wherein a great deal of Linden employees’ work was done.

What are some of your key research findings about Second Life? How is this community progressing from a sociological perspective?

My primary finding concerned the way in which the ostensibly “user-generated” world of Second Life was nonetheless shaped so deeply by the values and expectations that the makers at Linden Lab inscribed into it. What emerges is that while we may be tempted to think of the communities (and there are many) within Second Life as existing in a somewhat “natural” state, free to develop as they wish, in fact all users of Second Life are always already acting within an environment that makes assumptions about what kind of people they are. The inscription of property rights into the world is only the most obvious example of the ineradicable ideological assumptions that are part of SL.

Do you have any advice for professional or other organizations as to how they could use Second Life to help foster increased activity amongst their members?

Second Life’s advantage is the wide bandwidth for nuanced social action that it provides. That is, moving about as avatars within the environment broadens the scope for meaningful expression in ways that can form the foundation for powerful applications. From my point of view, the most promising of these are educational and therapeutic — uses that leverage the real human connections possible in an environment that allows people to express themselves so broadly.

Did you find in your research that Second Life is evolving in a unique way compared to other communities?

Certainly, but in a sense any given community changes historically in a unique fashion. We are always tempted to find some common sequence or pattern to how societies change, but overwhelmingly the evidence that anthropology and related fields have found about all communities is that they change historically, in contingent ways. There are some patterns we can observe that hold across some if not all cases, but no universal path. This is a facet of all change (even evolutionary change) that Charles Darwin deeply appreciated, but it is often forgotten in our desire to have universal answers.

Do you care to make a prediction on the future of online communities? Will Second Life shape any primarily online social world going forward, or are other systems innovating in other more interesting ways?

I think Second Life already has. Metaplace, the new virtual world by famous game designer Raph Koster, owes an enormous amount to Second Life in its conception of what users want (ideas that more deeply connect with longstanding assumptions about people, authority, and technology in postwar-U.S., especially the Bay Area).

Do you spend much time actively participating in communities online or are you always wearing a researching hat? If so, in which communities do you spend your leisure time?

I spend a great deal of time in virtual worlds, and almost all of it is in World of Warcraft, where I lead a guild of academics and their friends and family.

There are many different online and mobile applications that allow people to find new methods of connecting with very little overhead.  How do you think SecondLife can compete—or work in conjunction—with these?

With any networked technology (really, any technology) we must always be mindful of the specific experience of using it and the affordances it brings. There are things that Second Life and similar worlds are good at that mobile apps could never hope to achieve, and it is the same in the other direction. We don’t need killer apps, we need killer uses– and those are far harder to anticipate and encourage through design.

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About Thomas Malaby

Thomas Malaby is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has published numerous works on virtual worlds, games, practice theory, and indeterminacy. His principal research interest is in the relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, particularly as they are realized through games and game-like processes.

You can learn more about Thomas on the Speakers Page and the Program Page of the IDEA Conference website.

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access) 2009: Social Experience Design

IDEA2009 brings together the world’s foremost thinkers and practitioners: sharing the big ideas that inspire, along with practical solutions for the ways people’s lives and systems are converging to affect society.

These days, you can’t be socially engaging without considering the experience design. IDEA2009 brings together like-minded people who want to continue the exploration of Social Experience Design.

IDEA 2009: An Interview with Leisa Reichelt

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2009 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Director of Events and Marketing for the IAI, I fill a variety of roles and lead the charge for the IDEA Conference this year, as well as get to Interview the IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Greg Corrin in this case).

For this interview, I was able to ask a few questions with Leisa Reichelt. If her name is not familiar to you, it’s possible you’ve heard of the term "ambient intimacy" that she coined (and frankly, is quite too often NOT cited as the source for that).  You can learn more about Leisa online at disambiguity where she blogs. You can also be on the lookout for Drupal 7; I hear she had a thing or to do with that…

Where do you go and what do you do to recharge, find inspiration, or renew your creativity?

I think the most guaranteed way to get myself into an inspired and creative state is to spend a few hours in an art museum – I particularly love being so close to the Tate Modern in London, but just remembering visits I’ve made to the Pompidou, the Guggenheim in NYC & Venice (I am a complete sucker for the Modernists) and I can almost feel my mind open up and think about what the future could be like and all the different ways to approach communicating what we’re thinking and feeling and believing.

At the completely other end of the scale, I also draw a huge amount of inspiration from my Twitter network and the tiny little nuggets of ideas, ourselves, and what we make of our world. I’ve also recently taken up crochet as a way to try to switch myself off for an hour or so in the evening – it is kind of like my equivalent to meditation, I guess.

And the other thing I find really valuable is to travel and spend time in different parts of the world. It is so easy to think that there is only one way of living, of seeing the world, and the best possible antidote to that is travel – I think that it is incredibly important as a designer to remind myself that ‘my way’ is just one of very many, and it is alarming how quickly we can forget this if we continue to surround ourselves with everything that is familiar.

As a parent, I often find myself “accidentally” teaching categorization and sorting to my kids. As a parent, do you ever find yourself trying to teach some tricks of the trade to your child?

Ha ha! No, not yet. I’m just trying to get him to put everything into one container at the moment (my boy is 18 months old and resisting the concept of ‘cleaning up’).

At this point it is all about him teaching me, actually. I have an iPhone that he has been using for a few months now, initially just as a music player for his nursery rhymes when we were in the car, but now he has several programs on the phone that are there specifically for him (Koi Pond, Bubbles and Peekaboo Barn for parents with iPhones – I recommend them!) I am constantly astounded at how skilled he is at interacting with my iPhone – not only for the applications that are designed for someone like him, but he can actually find the application on the phone, launch it, hit ‘Start’ (not settings) – I think it’s amazing and it makes me think a lot about what the world will be like for him, where these kinds of interactions will be a part of every moment of the life that he can remember. It’s exciting!

Drupal is many things; in addition to being a content management system it can be used for social networking and community organizing—how are you and the Drupal community working to make it better at supporting social interactions and experiences?

For the Drupal 7 release, the main thing that we’re trying to do is to make the Drupal platform and the wide range of tools that it makes available for social interaction and community building online more widely accessible to non-developers. At the moment, it can be a pretty daunting experience for someone who is new to Drupal or who doesn’t have a developer background and we’re trying to improve that experience by developing a system wide design that is more focussed on the ‘content creator’ role than it has been in the past. We’re not specifically aiming to make it better at supporting social interactions & experiences, but I do hope that is one of the outcomes of the work we do.

As a designer for a prominent open source community project, what have you found to be the keys to success in working with open source developers, specifically on the usability and experience fronts?

Ah, I’m not sure that we have yet found the keys to success – it is a big journey for everyone involved. Some things that have worked well though has been to clearly articulate some goals and/or principles for the project that can be easily repeated by the community throughout the project (for example, some of ours are to ‘focus on the content creator’, the ‘design for the 80% rule’, and the ‘use smart defaults’ rules) – defining these early on really helps people understand the direction you’re heading in, and then later on, helps you to explain why you’re suggesting approaches that may be unexpected.

Sharing the way that we work, I think, has also been very useful – we (Mark Boulton & I) really wanted to avoid any sense of design ‘mystique’ and to really show what designers do, how we work, the processes and methods we use. I think this does two good things – it helps people understand why designs are they way that they are, but it also makes design and designers more approachable and understandable, and perhaps even encourages some people to start integrating some of our practices into their own way of working. For example, I know that since we did the ‘crowdsourced usability testing’ and really made the process of doing a short usability test really transparent, there are some developers in the community who now actually do some observational research as a part of their practice now, which I think is beyond excellent.

We’ve also had to learn to shape the way that we work to suit the community a little – we need to be ready to explain, in detail and often, the rationale behind almost every pixel on a page. This is pretty heavy going at times, and not really a great way to get design implemented, but it really has made sure that we’ve really thought through why things are designed the way they are – it makes for a very thoughtful process.

I know many of my friends who are developers are excited—and possibly a bit nervous about the next version of Drupal being released. How do you think members of the UX community will receive it?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I’m nervous too!

Anyone who has been following the process on D7UX.org should know what to expect because we’ve been posting screenshots of the work for months and the overall principles of the design of the next version have been out on the table since about April this year. I really believe that the user experience of Drupal 7 will be a significant step forward, and will make the experience of using Drupal for content creators and ‘clients’ of Drupal developers much, much better.

Having said that, there is a lot that we would have liked to have done to make Drupal 7 a truly game-changing release that we weren’t able to get over the bar. We had really hoped that with Drupal 7 non-developers would be able to build a site of reasonable sophistication that looked good within 30 mins of installing Drupal, and I don’t believe we’re going to achieve that goal this time around. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve achieved, though, considering the speed at which we’ve had to work and the complexities associated with the project – I hope it sets a good benchmark for what can be achieved when designing with a community.

You are currently in the UK, but have worked in Australia and on multi-national projects in the past. How important is local knowledge and understanding of cultural nuance in the design of social interactions online?

This is such a tough question and I go back and forth on it all the time. In some ways it is incredibly important and in other ways it is amazing how unimportant it is. I think it depends a lot on what you’re socialising around.

I think that if you are designing anything for cultures that you’re not native to – whether that be another country or an existing community – you really need to try to immerse yourself in that culture and to make sure that you’ve got a lot of great access to natives of that culture to help you make good decisions and avoid dumb oversights.

Having said that, I also think that we have much more in common, universally, and that there is a lot to be said for focussing on that.

Language is the real kicker though. I quite often have other English speakers (in the UK and US) look at me as though I’m speaking a foreign language and I realise that I’ve inadvertently slipped into speaking ‘Australia’ – I can’t even tell what is ‘Australian’ and what is not because I always thought I was just speaking ‘English’ – what a myth that is! (I’m also waiting to see if you’re going to change all my s’s into z’s when this is published!)

So many of the times that I’ve witnessed disagreements and hostility arise in an online community, the culprit has been language – mostly because so many of the important discussions are held in English only, and people are forced to engage using a non-native language – sometimes things come across entirely differently to how they are intended because the original intent gets lost in translation. Assuming best intent is such an old guideline but one of the most important and one that I’ve clung to over the past 12 months or so!

Do you think online communities culturally assimilated by virtue of the medium or still strongly affected by state and regional norms of culture and behavior?

This is a great question and I had to ask my Twitter network what we seemed to agree on.

1. see above re: language (see, I told you it’s the real kicker!) – language is the most likely reason for us to cluster online in a geographically influenced way which creates an environment where state and regional norms are likely to prevail, however; 2. it’s an ongoing negotiation and changes over time and is different from network to network (Anthony Gedden’s work on the Theory of Structuration is worth checking out if this is an area you’re interested in)

My experience has been that the more mature, geographically diverse and subject focussed the online community, the more likely they are to have a culture and behaviour that is unique to itself and to the more general ‘medium’ of ‘online community’ than it is to the norms of the individual participants ‘offline’ cultures. It is a constantly shifting environment though and endlessly subject to change both as the number and characteristics of its constituents varies, and also as particular behaviours are imposed onto the community (I’m thinking of how communications have to change in order to include participants who don’t read code, for example – one of the shifts that the Drupal community has been making in recent times).

 —

About Leisa Reichelt

Leisa Reichelt is a freelance design researcher & user experience designer who has worked with global brands, innovative startups and open source communities to help them deliver great online experiences for their customers and community members.

You can learn more about Leisa on the Speakers Page and the Program Page of the IDEA Conference website.

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access) 2009: Social Experience Design

IDEA2009 brings together the world’s foremost thinkers and practitioners: sharing the big ideas that inspire, along with practical solutions for the ways people’s lives and systems are converging to affect society.

These days, you can’t be socially engaging without considering the experience design. IDEA2009 brings together like-minded people who want to continue the exploration of Social Experience Design.

IDEA 2008: An Interview with David Armano

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

This is the third interview in the series, and I got to spend time with David Armano, VP Experience Design at Critical Mass. David has been seen at many conferences this year, and has quite possibly been seen cruising through Chicagoland on his motorcycle in his down time. He also blogs about experience design at Logic + Emotion.

RU: How did you get your start in the design industry?

DA: At birth. I was born with two eyes and a brain and I’ve been a “visual person” since I can remember. I was always the person in class doodling, or drawing something. Or just daydreaming. I would say that the formal training I received didn’t really happen until I enrolled into design school (Pratt), and that’s where I learned the basics of design as well as how it intersected with technology. Like many, my first job out of school was in graphic design—I then moved into broadcast and in 1997 I made the jump to Web and I haven’t looked back. While I appreciated all sorts of design and the strategies that drive it, I’m really jazzed about the things I see happening in the digital space. The funny thing is that while I whiteboard quite a bit, I hardly ever draw anymore yet I’m known as a “visual thinker”. I still consider what I do (design strategy) to be part if the discipline. At one point in my career, I aspired to be an illustrator. Now I illustrate concepts which help people take action.

RU: How did you get your start as a presenter?

DA: In my previous life as a creative director which is one of the hardest presenting gigs anyone can ever have. No audience ever fired you for a bad presentation—but a client might. So that’s how I started (sort of). But I really started talking about industry perspectives around 3 years ago and things rapidly picked up in the past year or two and I’m sure the blog and writing has had a lot to do with it. I don’t consider myself an experienced speaker. Mostly, I use whatever skills I have to make the most of a presentation. My visuals help, and it REALLY helps that I believe in what I talk about. I’ve never taken a class in public speaking and the rules I give myself are simple. 1. Be myself 2. Do my best 3. Tell a story. The highlight of my speaking career was getting invited to speak at Google. I would have love to have participated in, but it conflicted with a family trip I had scheduled. Though it seems like I speak a lot, I’m actually a poor self-promoter and have been lucky to get invited to some great venues recently. People like Jared Spool have given me some big breaks, and I’ve been fortunate for it. I enjoy speaking and consider it a privilege. Anytime someone is willing to give you their time to hear you out, you have to take it seriously.

RU: What should the audience take away from your talk?

DA: I can’t answer this question really. People will take away what they want and that’s a good thing. I can tell you what I hope they will. I hope they will be excited about the future which I believe presents huge opportunities for people who understand how to create great experiences one interaction at a time. This could be through interface, through content or even through personal interactions such as responding to comments, etc. I can’t help but see a strong link developing between social networking and experience design. We are living in an age where we can design prototypes and get real time feedback. People can tell us what they want and we’ll have to be confident in ourselves to read between the lines. But at the end of the day, I believe that it’s more important than ever to deliver a great experience vs. building a myth around one.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

DA: People. I’m a people watcher. When I have any free time, I’ll often try to watch people wherever they are. I watch how they speak to each other, what cars they drive, if they have a difficult or easy time opening up a door. I do this a lot online as well—through networks, and the digital destinations that people frequent. I’m also inspired by public places and how people interact with them. Millennium Park for example is a great example of a space that’s changed the face of Chicago. I love watching people play in the fountain and delight in it’s design. I’m also inspired my many of the new Web applications out there. Slideshare came out of nowhere and it’s treasure trove if inspiration. Both the platform and the content are inspirational and I love to see that somethng like this can seemingly appear out of nowhere and evolve into an incredibly useful resource.

RU: You really try to balance your work and presentation life with family time—in fact, you recently backed-out of a trip to Google in order to spend time with one of your boys at a summer camp. This is the type of move that many of us applauded you for, and it really sends a good message to people about maintaining that balance.
What advice would you give to people about maintaining work/personal balance as they’re trying to establish themselves?

DA: Funny, I just mentioned that earlier. For me it wasn’t even a choice. Fact is I already work hard enough and don’t have time for “regular hobbies” like sports or TV, so the least I can do is recognize when I’m given a gift. I’d say the best thing to do is realize when we have a few hours or a few days to re-connect with the people who are important to us, we need to take a step back and do so. My little guy would never remember that I spoke at Google, but he’ll always remember fishing in that canoe.

RU: In my opinion, no matter what any of us achieve, our kids will always think of us as “mommy” or “daddy” and our parents will pretty much always know us as the kid they raised more so than the adults we become.
Do your parents know you’re “David Armano” like the rest of us do? And, of course, how do they feel about it all?

DA: True story. I’m in NY visiting family and my mom says “David, we’re so proud of you. Want some chick peas?”. I think that about sums it up.

RU: This is a set-up question: What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

DA: Of course you know the answer to this—it’s writing and visual thinking. 🙂 I don’t do a lot of video or audio because it takes more time and I like to get ideas out quickly in a medium I feel comfortable in. Words and pictures are as basic as you get, they are universal and can be shared easily. While the power of other mediums cannot be underestimated, for me words and pictures can communicate a lot with a certain purity as there is not a lot of production associated.

RU: Last question and it’s a 2-parter. Let’s be honest, you’re “internet famous” and people get some online cred just by getting public messages from you or mentions in anything you write and/or say. How has being a presenter and conference-attendee helped you improve upon your career?

DA: Oh, it’s re-defined what I do—absolutely. People are only now realizing how HARD it is to build a brand (whether personal or real) online and so, I am sought after for my experience in this area. Only two years ago I was plugging away as a billable employee with strange internet hobby and now I work a lot more on the strategy and evangelist side of things. Through it all, I still believe that positive interactions build brands and so in whatever I do, I try to either demonstrate this or get people inspired about it. I’m not in the weeds as much as I used to be—but since I talk about “being in beta”—I have to be open to where this is all taking me. I don’t know the end story. I don’t think any of us does.

RU: Part 2. Besides finding a hat, boots and motorcycle that best fit your own personal mojo, what would you recommend to people who are just getting started in the field and who are interested in becoming more active in the industry—or who just want to follow in your footsteps?

DA: This is easy in instruction and difficult to pull off. I started online with zero awareness and few connections. What I did was simply to provide value through my thinking and artifacts. Because I was willing to share this freely and do my best to be myself, it resonated with some (not all) people and that’s OK. You have to do something that sets you apart. Seth Godin says it best in his “Purple Cow” theory. You need to do something “remarkable”. This could mean being an uber-connector, a great communicator, or simply having a really unique perspective on something. The most amazing thing to me is that the Web is fundamentally a level playing field in which the niches can thrive on. People can simply come out of nowhere and build something with reach. It’s a huge opportunity for not just people but businesses. I can’t stress this enough. But the bottom line is that you need to be doing something that someone sees VALUE in.

 

About David Armano

David has over 14 years of experience in the communications industry, having spent the majority of his time in digital marketing and experience design. An active thought leader in the industry, David authors the popular Logic + Emotion blog currently ranked in the top 25 of the “Power 150,” as listed by Advertising Age. David’s writing and visual thinking has been cited by respected sources, such as Forrester and Crain’s, and has landed him in BusinessWeek on several occasions including their “Best of 2006”. David leads an interdisciplinary group of designers, writers and content strategists for the Chicago office of Critical Mass. Aside from his presence on the Web, David is known as an evangelist for customer-centric strategies and acts as an advocate for the creation of meaningful interactions, which influence behavior. In his spare time he contributes articles to various professional publications and spends as much quality time with his family as possible.

David still has not shaved his bear and enjoys calling me up in the middle of the afternoon to see if I’d like to hang out with him while he eats lunch.

 

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.

IDEA 2008: An Interview with Andrew Hinton

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

This is the second interview in the series, and this time I pulled the name of Andrew Hinton, Lead Information Architect at Vanguard, from the virtual hat. You may recognize Andrew as the presenter of the closing plenary for the IA Summit in Miami this year. Andrew’s blog is Inkblurt and don’t be surprised if you end up engrossed in it and feel as if you are getting a free education!

RU: How did you get your start in Interaction/Information Design?

AH: As far as technology-based work, I did some very rudimentary interface work when I was learning a bit of Apple BASIC & Pascal back in high school. But I’d say my first real challenge was when I had a job at a small medical office as their office manager, and all they had was a typewriter and a telephone. I talked them into getting a computer (a Mac Plus), and buying a database package (something called Double Helix), and letting me build a client accounts system for them.
Trouble was, I had to design it so that my exceedingly tech-phobic co- workers could use it, which forced me to think hard about interface design.
Of course, that was just a part-time job when I was in graduate school. My academic background (Philosophy, Literature & Creative Writing) taught me a lot about making difficult ideas understandable with language — and I think that’s at the core of any information- design challenge. That background continues to be a help for me.

RU: How did you get your start as a presenter?

AH: I’ve been doing stuff in front of crowds since I was a kid. Everything from playing music in a bluegrass band when I was about ten to oratory and debate in high school. Plus drama & choir and the band I had in college. Then there’s the teaching I did while in grad school, and I won’t even go into the preaching I did as a teenager in a big suburban Southern Baptist church.
As far as speaking at conferences, I started sending in proposals to the IA Summit and got one accepted, and sort of got on a roll.

RU: What should the audience take away from your talk?

AH: Well, I suppose details are still emerging. The topic is context, and what technology is doing to upset our deeply ingrained assumptions about context — socially and otherwise. But in general, I’d say I’m more interested in asking questions than answering them. That is, I hope it gets people talking.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

AH: That’s tough. I’d have to say my major inspiration is my kid. She’s the future I’m designing for, in more ways than one.
In terms of people I read or look up to, for me it’s all over the place. I grab inspiration from wherever I can find it. Lately I’ve been really into watching presentations from the Long Now Foundation, for instance. The one by Will Wright & Brian Eno is especially amazing. But I also find my imagination-head needs input from things like movies, fiction, biographies, documentaries about almost anything.

RU: You’ve mentioned your daughter before–both in presentations and at least a couple of times in some of the post-IA Summit Y! Live sessions that we were both in. She seems like a really great kid, and as a daughter-daddy myself, I think it’s great when I hear others in our community really getting in to “the future as our children”. As crazy as our worlds can be with work and other obligations, the IA / IxD / UX world seems to be ripe with really great parents.
What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

AH: I like a lot of different methods — and one thing I love about this age we live in is the great variety we now have for communicating. There seems to be a whole new species of communication cropping up every few years, and they all seem to emerge from the nuanced needs we have for how we connect. So, really it’s very contextual for me. I like whatever tool feels most suited for the kind of communicating I’m trying to do at the moment.
It’s easier to say my least favorite — that’s the garden-variety conference call. So little context, so little sense of physical reaction. Plus the awful noise-reduction circuitry on most speaker phones makes it even harder to pick up on subtle verbal cues. I always come out of conference calls feeling anxious & exhausted.

RU: And now, a 2-parter. A lot of people know your name, have heard you speak in the past, quote your blog, and you’re thought highly of (this interviewer is included in that group). How has being a presenter and conference-attendee helped you improve upon your career?

AH: Presenting has been a big help, mainly in my own head. By that I mean … First, the pressure of presenting on a topic forces me to grapple with it in a rigorous way I’m too lazy to do otherwise, which results in having my ideas sorted out in my work a lot better as well.
Second, it’s a decent confidence boost that helps me stick up for the user with more authority than I might otherwise be able to in the daily grind.
Even just going to conferences has been very helpful though. The User Experience Design world is so distributed and virtual — we’re all in each other’s heads, mediated through electronics and words.

Periodically being able to look each other in the eye is incredibly important to keeping all that grounded.
And I don’t know how this “thought highly of” business got going, obviously you’ve never seen me after a conference call!

RU: Part 2. What would you recommend to people who are just getting started in the field and who are interested in becoming more active in the industry—or who just want to follow in your footsteps.

AH: It means a lot to get involved in your community of practice. You don’t realize what an impact it makes on people around you, but it’s huge. Find some problem that needs solving that tickles your fancy, some skill or service that the community could benefit from that you get a kick out of working on, and dive in. Lurking is fine at times, but if you want to be “active in the industry” you have to engage. You can engage the conversation at any level, as long as you have a sense
of humor & perspective about it. And read all kinds of stuff — don’t just read “design” crap all the time. We all breathe each other’s air way too much, and it’s important to get ideas from outside the UX bubble.
As for my footsteps, I don’t recommend them — mainly because I don’t know that I could’ve walked those steps on purpose if I’d tried. Which is to say, follow what obsesses and excites you, whatever crazy path that might take you down, and there’s probably somebody somewhere willing to pay you for doing it well.

RU: I’ve said to many people that a lot of us have not come by our current roles honestly. That is, almost everything that you stated above. I’m trying to say that I think your footsteps are fairly common for the more “seasoned” folks in the industry. Do you have an opinion on where the User Experience Designer of tomorrow will evolve from?

AH:There are already formal curricula out there that are bringing older practitioner skills and learning into the User Experience space, and from what I can tell they’re doing a great job. If I hadn’t burned out on graduate education long ago, I’d consider going to a program myself. That said, I think UX is inherently a hands-on practice, and has to be done to be understood. Doing the work is the only way to get better at it. So whether newer folks get a head start on that from internships or studio work in school, it’ll be necessary eventually anyway. The other thing is that, this field is evolving so quickly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see people from many other fields coming into the fold and showing us new, amazing things they know how to do that we hadn’t thought of. For example, I keep running across news items from the neuroscience world (which is exploding lately with amazing new knowledge) and finding it incredibly applicable to UX work. UX design will always need cross-disciplinary input, and practitioners who adapt and evolve with the work itself.

 

About Andrew Hinton

Since 1990, Andrew Hinton has worked as a designer, instructor, writer and consultant of various stripes in the healthcare, financial, consumer and manufacturing industries. Clients have been small and large, including Fortune 500s such as American Express, Shaw, Wachovia and Kimberly-Clark. Andrew is now a Lead Information Architect in mutual-fund giant Vanguard’s User Experience Group.

From his pre-Web education, Andrew holds a BA in Philosophy, an MA in Literature and an MFA in Writing. He’s a regular speaker at conferences like the IA Summit, and sometimes writes for publications like Boxes & Arrows. His current obsessions include Communities of Practice, social design factors, what games teach us about design, and the meaning of context in digital spaces.

A co-founder of the IA Institute, he serves on its Board of Advisors. He also keeps a home on the web at inkblurt.com.

 

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.

IDEA 2008: An Interview with Bill DeRouchey

Written by: Russ Unger

As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

For this interview, I was fortunate to draw Bill DeRouchey’s name. If his name is not familiar to you, some of his work should be. Bill’s blog is Push. Click. Touch. and his Conversations with Everyday Objects presentation is one that is well worth your time.

RU: How did you get your start in Interaction/Information Design?

BD: Like most people working in interaction design, I arrived from a lateral discipline. I had been an information architect working strictly on web projects from 2000-2004, either within an agency or as a consultant, respectively before and after the tech collapse. Prior to that, I had experience in writing, coding, product marketing, web producing, and then all the way back to my early days doing layout of computer science textbooks. So I had many angles on "tech."
In 2004, I was hired as an IA by Ziba Design, a product design company, not an obvious match. But they had a few website projects and asked me to come aboard. I quickly began working on physical products and learned interaction design along the way. Yes, I got lucky. I still take an architecture / flow / structure / behavior / systems approach to IxD, as opposed to the visual design side of it.

RU: It sounds like you’re relatively "young" to the field, but you’re well-known and well-respected in a short amount of time.  How did you get your start as a presenter?

BD: I blame/thank Christina Wodtke for starting me as a presenter. A few months after I started at Ziba, I signed up for a Future of IA retreat in Asilomar, by Monterrey, CA. During registration, Christina asked me "what are you going to present?" Uhhh… So I pitched a talk called the IA of Things discussing my transition from digital to physical products, and the challenges of documenting physical interaction. Later after gentle prodding from Dave Malouf, I finally realized I was talking about interaction design. But that weekend seriously changed my career because I got to meet 40 incredible people, many of which I now consider friends. I discovered I enjoyed pitching weird questions and wrapping presentations around them, such as, what is the history of the button?

RU: I think a lot of us put some of the blame on Christina–and she’s a self-proclaimed talent scout. I’d say she’s on the mark!
What should the audience take away from your talk?

BD: Besides their empty coffee cups? If people took only one thing away from my talk, I’d love it if people saw that they can find UI inspiration almost anywhere and expand their design eye from pure onscreen experiences to any interface out there. Gas pumps, thermostats, crosswalk, elevators, mall signage, anything. Every one of these interfaces affects how someone thinks about technology or information, so there’s always a lesson to be discovered within them. If just five people went home and really looked at their alarm clock for the first time to figure out the design decisions that were made when building it, I’d be happy. We’re going to need a lot more product UI designers in the coming years, and they’re going to come from onscreen UI designers. The job opportunities aren’t all there yet, but the opportunity to learn always is.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

It may be cliche, but my parents. My dad was always the king of the many projects, but he saw most of them through and has done some really amazing things. He started programming somewhere around 1970 on DECs and VAXs and eventually started his own company whose flagship product (UAP-LINK) transferred files across different systems, DEC to VAX, VAX to IBM, etc. A few years ahead of his time. He taught me to program in C when I was still in high school and I did some coding for his company. So my first computer experience was learning CP/M on a DEC PDP-11 and playing Adventure, thanks to him. Then about 20 years later, he built his own plane. He built an RV-10 kit, riveting pieces together for three years during the day while he coded his own instrument panel at night. It’s a gorgeous piece of work and flies perfectly. And my mom will remodel her place in her spare time. Reconfigure the kitchen, build new dressers, sew up quilts, re-mud the ceiling, whatever.
Incredible to see. So I get my Get Stuff Done inspiration from my parents.

RU: Your dad sounds pretty amazing, and it’s interesting to see what other fathers in this space are starting to do with their own kids (Matt Milan and I seem to be teaching the best of the worst IA traits to ours) and how something that used to be considered pretty nerdy/geeky is starting to be viewed a bit differently.
This is a set-up question: What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

Do I have only 140 characters to say it in? Yeah, it’d have to be Twitter. It’s been an amazing tool to stay connected with people that I’ve met at various events and friends here in town. It’s really damn hard to stay connected with all the people we know, so Twitter does a fine job at maintaining that connection by hearing about their lives.

As David Weinberger said, "intimacy is in the details."

RU: Last question, and this is a doozy: Over the course of 2008, you and I have become “friends”–at least I’d say that, and I believe you’ve said that. We most likely will not meet face-to-face until October at IDEA in Chicago, yet I’d say we have built a level of trust and respect for each other–we’ve even worked “virtually” on putting together a panel presentation for SXSW together. How do you think that happened, and who should we blame?

This fascinates me too. It’s true. We’ve never met face to face and we’ve only talked on the phone once, but we’ve had enough online interaction to build both trust and friendship. How the hell is that possible? Tracing it back is an interesting case study. On Twitter, I noticed a few friends (people I have met f2f and trust) keep talking to @russu. Okay, I’ll see what this guy is up to. Seems harmless enough, okay, follow. Then we made some connection on music, and the conversation developed from there. But is this really different at all from meeting people in the “real world”? You meet through mutual friends, connect on something simple, and then just keep talking. That’s the beauty of Twitter. People are giving you many opportunities to connect in some way. Sometimes it clicks and you make a new friend. If you never actually meet, so what? Yes, it’d be a shame, but geography should never be a barrier to connecting with other people.

 

About Bill DeRouchey

Bill has over fifteen years experience as a writer, information architect, product manager and now senior interaction designer with Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon. With Ziba, he frames and details the experience, flow, and interaction on consumer and medical products. Bill also writes about the variety and history of interaction design in everyday experiences on his blog, Push Click Touch, and is a frequent speaker at industry events. He is determined to stretch how people think about interaction design, from beyond the pure digital to any interaction between humans and the artifacts they create. Bill is on the Board of Directors of IxDA, the Interaction Design Association, and serves as Treasurer.

 

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.