In early Nov 2008, I started to talk to a few people about the idea of a book club in Sydney to discuss User Experience (UX) books. Russ Unger and Donna Spencer encouraged me to let other people hear about it, and when I did – through the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) Members discussion list, and then through the Interaciton Design Associaton (IxDA) – many people thought it was a good idea.
And then something surprising happened, people liked the idea so much that they started doing things to make it happen. Andrew Boyd registered the “uxbookclub.org”:http://uxbookclub.org/doku.php domain, set up the wiki, and starting the content rolling. Will Evans designed a logo, wrote a whole bunch of content, set up a decent structure, and let everyone use either, or both, if they wanted. Andrew’s been in on the wiki each day tidying and gardening, making sure it doesn’t get out of control.
First one volunteer, then another, and another put their hand up and offered to organize a UX Book Club in their local area. New York City joined Sydney, Canberra, and Washington D.C. By the end of that first week over 28 cities had a local UX Book Club under way, and nearly 400 people had signed up to take part.
The first meeting was held in Silicon Valley in mid-December, followed by meetings in New York and Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Canberra, Sydney & Austin. Through the second half of February meetings were held in Atlanta, Minnesota, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, Brisbane, Toronto, London and Chicago.
The What and the Why
UX Book Club is a fairly simple idea: get a group of people together, choose a book, and agree on meeting details. Go away and read the book. On the date set, come together and discuss the book. Talk about how you might use what you’ve read in your work; how your experiences run counter to the book; an example of how the book is spot on. Have a bloody good argument about it, then go have a drink and talk about it some more.
At a UX Book Club you have an incentive to read some of those user experience books you’ve heard about but still lays on your bookshelf. You discuss the book with other UX practitioners, which will help you get more out of the book. And you meet fellow UXers working in the same town as you.
You also hear about a lot of books that other people have read, found interesting, but aren’t suitable for discussion by the group. That may be because they’re too long, or highly specialized, or too expensive for a large group of people. Hopefully, though, you’ll be exposed to a much broader range of books than you do on mailing lists or blog posts currently.
How It Works
The Sydney meeting – held on February 3rd – seems to have been fairly typical of the experiences across the board – with local variations in terms of weather, location, and numbers. But the stories seem to have a consistent theme: great discussion, lots of energy, and a good time had by all.
“It was fairly incredible how natural — how routine — it felt. I mean, here was a group of people, many of whom had never participated in any community event, and none of whom (to my knowledge) had ever engaged in an extrinsically focused book club. The book became the medium for discussion, though the topic remained entrenched in UX and design.” - Jonathan S Knoll, UX Book Club NYC
UX Book Club Sydney held the February meeting at the offices of the “News Digital Media”:http://usit.com.au team in their “New York Lounge”. Their hospitality was greatly appreciated, and the space was perfect for the event.
The event was structured along the same lines as those used by New York City (thanks to Cindy Chastain) and applied successfully in Los Angeles. The meeting opened with a brief welcome and introduction, then a volunteer from the group gave a 5-minute overview of the book (in our case Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences). We broke into two groups (10 and 13 people, respectively) and headed to opposite ends of the Lounge to discuss the book in detail. Cindy’s rationale for the smaller groups was that they give everyone a much better opportunity to contribute to the discussion – and this was borne out by the comments I received afterward.
After a good solid hour or so of group discussion we came back together, had a bit of a recap, thanked everyone for attending, and relocated to a nearby pub to carry on. The ‘official’ proceedings kicked off at 6pm and ended just after 8pm. The ‘after-hours’ discussions wound up around 10pm. Not bad for the first event.
The entire event was terribly uncomplicated, and I highly recommend the format. Better yet, the discussion highlighted areas of the book I hadn’t really considered important on first reading. This new information encourages me to go back and re-read those parts, armed with some real-world anecdotes to help make it more concrete.
“UX Book Club got me to finally pick up a book I had been meaning to read, and to have the chance to exercise my brain a bit. I found myself waxing philosophical with my fellow book clubbers about education and urban planning, as well as positive (and negative) user experiences we’ve had.”
– “Roz Duffy”:http://stellargirl.typepad.com/stellargirl/2009/02/my-current-muse-ux-book-club.html, UX Book Club Philadelphia
The events serve as both means and end. Reading the books being discussed is a good thing, in and of itself. You will get more out of the event having read the book, and the overall level discussion and engagement will be higher for everyone.
But reading the book isn’t required. The book acts as a starting point for a wider-ranging discussion around the topic. Each person brings not only their understanding of the book, but alsp the full breadth of their professional and educational experience to the discussion. So whilst reading the book provides everyone with a common frame of reference, the really interesting discussion arises from our differences.
“Most UX people I know are web interaction designers like me, but the book club drew developers, software UI designers, business strategists, visual designers, and various flavors of agency and in-house IAs and IxDs.”
– Sarah Mitchell, UX Book Club Los Angeles
In saying all that it’s also important to recognise that no two UX Book Clubs will be the same. The books will be different. Some groups will meet monthly; others every alternate month. Some will be small affairs with half a dozen folks and others will be big (30+); and some will be more book reviews than book discussion. And that’s OK. What’s important is that we learn something, meet some people, and enjoy ourselves in the process.
“…And that sort of set the tone for the rest of the event: high-energy, engaged conversation, a fertile middle ground between events where there is a single speaker with everyone else semi-passively engaged, and free-for-all cocktail hours, which are fun and great for networking, but lighter on substance.”
– “Anders Ramsay”:http://www.andersramsay.com/2009/01/17/taking-the-ux-book-club-to-the-edge/, UX Book Club NYC
Getting Involved In UX Book Club
There are two ways to get involved in UX Book Club. The first is to sign up to the group in your local area. A list of existing UX Book Clubs is available on the wiki at “uxbookclub.org”:http://uxbookclub.org. There are around 50 groups already listed – including some groups that are just forming. If you’re working in UX or would like to learn more about the field to help with whatever work you are doing, add your name so that you can be kept informed.
The second way to get involved is to start your own UX Book Club in your area. We’ve found that the best thing to do add your city or town to the wiki list, then post a message to the IxDA.org or IAI mailing lists (or both) letting other people know. We’ll send an announcement out via “@uxbookclub”:http://twitter.com/uxbookclub on Twitter to help spread the word. If you have a local IAI, UPA, or IxDA chapter, tell them about it at your next meeting.
I’ll leave with you a quote from Whitney Hess (UX Book Club, NYC) that echoes the sentiments of so many UX Book Club attendees:
“These books really aren’t meant to be read alone — they’re references as well as jumping off points for exploration of the practice. It was great to hear what others thought of both the content and its context in the greater body of work, book-form and otherwise, that our community has produced.
Michael Wesch opened the IA Summit this year with an inspired keynote that provides a fresh and ambitious direction for all designers.
He points out that our “audiences” aren’t audiences at all, but rather creators, and our job is not to lecture but to enable. With this new approach comes not only design challenges but the joy of reconnecting people to each other, which he illustrated with a series of extraordinary video clips.
The following is an outline of some of his key points; please download the audio for the complete experience.
Contrast Reveals Mediation
Wesch tells several stories about his study of cultural anthropology and how those illustrate how Western culture, and in particular US culture, has become completely mediated.
He then illustrates the process of how his video “The Machine Is Us/ing Us”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fboxesandarrows.com%2Fview%2Fia-summit-09-keynote&feature=player_embedded becomes an internet phenomenon and how its rise represents an alternative to the mass media machine that has developed in the US over the last several decades.
Varieties of Media Bias
Content bias (e.g. liberal or conservative bent) is only one of many types of media bias, and that all of them add up to “metaphysical bias.” The effects of this have not changed much over time, that comments made about the printing press can help us reflect on what is happening in the current environment. Wesch wants us, as the creators of the tools, to think about what environment we want to create and work towards it.
Using his classroom as a crucible, Wesch delves into how US culture arrived in its current state, using the assembly line as the starting place, moving through MTV, and onto American Idol. As a part of this journey, he traces the history of “whatever” and comments on the current cultural impotence.
Wesch then assembles a multi-faceted picture that there is hope for our culture through the interaction of digital artifacts. He spends a significant portion of the talk showing various example of these conversations. YouTube acts as a meme-spreader and remix environment, and Twitter allows you to see yourself clearly.
4chan, the disputably infamous “imageboard,” morphs into Anonymous and plays tricks on over 9000 celebrities and groups that take themselves too seriously. Wesch makes the point that we’re in the midst of a “context collapse,” examines what that means, and shows what people are trying to do with the tools that are currently available.
Architectures of Participation
In the end, “Architectures of Participation are becoming the architecture of our daily life.” Designers will be shaping the tools that shape the culture and hopes that our community of practice can help humanity “do whatever it takes by whatever means necessary.”
These podcasts are sponsored by:
The “American Society of Information Science & Technology”:http://asist.org/: Since 1937, ASIS&T has been THE society for information professionals leading the search for new and better theories, techniques, and technologies to improve access to information.
The “IA Summit”:http://www.iasummit.org: the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals.
The theme of the event this year, Expanding Our Horizons, inspired peers and industry experts to come together to speak about a wide range of topics. This included information as wide ranging as practical techniques & tools to evolving practices to create better user experiences.
“Boxes & Arrows”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com: Since 2001, Boxes & Arrows has been a peer-written journal promoting contributors who want to provoke thinking, push limits, and teach a few things along the way.
Contribute as an editor or author, and get your ideas out there. “boxesandarrows.com/about/participate”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/about/participate
Transcript of the opening keynote address delivered March 20, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, TN.
[music] Announcer: This podcast brought to you by ASIST, the American Society for Information Science & Technology, the society for information professionals; by the IA Summit, the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals; by Boxes and Arrows, visit boxesandarrows.com/about/participate to be a part of your peer‑written journal. And special thanks to Axure and Morae for sponsoring Boxes and Arrows as well as the many other sponsors of the IA Summit.
[music] Announcer: Michael Wesch delivered a powerful keynote presentation at the 10th annual Information Architecture Summit in Memphis, Tennessee. Michael has been dubbed “the explainer” by “Wired Magazine, ” a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture.
After two years studying the impact of writing on a remote, indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, he has turned his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society.
His videos on technology, education and information have been viewed by millions, translated in over 10 languages and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide.
I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers. Michael Wesch: I actually got my start looking at mediated culture in the most bizarre places in Papua New Guinea. So I’m going to tell you a quick little story about Papua New Guinea and how I got started there in order to frame everything I’m going to talk about. I’m going to end up talking about YouTube, 4chan, and Twitter and things like that, but we have to start in New Guinea in order to give us some context for that.
So I first went to New Guinea, this is 1999. I’ve went there off and on for the past 10 years, and ultimately have spent about two full years there in the past 10 years. And so to get to the villages where I work you have to fly into a little airstrip, like this little grass airstrip, and it takes you about two weeks to get that far because you’re usually waiting on little Cessnas and things like that. And ultimately you get here and then you walk a couple days and you end up in villages like this.
So you’re talking about places that have really nothing that we would call media in our terms. There’s no electricity, there’s no Internet and so on. Usually there’s not even working radios. Very isolated. And there’s not even money to speak of so these people are mostly subsistence horticulturists. And here you can see a garden. They grow lots of sweet potatoes and taro, they raise pigs. So this is a major feast that they would have.
They also eat anything that the forest provides them such as spiders. So after a big storm the rainwater will just wash these spiders down to the canopy and then they’ll harvest these and they’ll eat these spiders. They’ll also eat snakes whenever they get a chance. They’ll even eat what’s inside the snake. So here you can see they’ve taken out an animal that was recently eaten by the snake, and they then eat that.
And I show you this because this is where my journey really begins. This photo was taken about a week after I arrived, and it’s about 100 feet from where I was staying, which is right here. And I barely speak the language at this time. And I’ll just take you inside the hut here just to show you what it looks like.
This is what it looks like. These are actually my legs up here and this is my little sleeping bag. This little sleeping bag, I used to call it my little America because at night I would just try to wrap myself up in this thing and hide myself from the world because there were bugs everywhere and rats and all kinds of stuff.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: But of course this is the tropics, it’s the equator, so in the middle of the night I’d get really hot and the sleeping bag would be off of me and there I would be exposed.
And that night after we ate the snake, I was looking around and I noticed that there’s all these little holes in the floor, holes in the walls, holes everywhere. And I thought, gosh, a snake could just crawl right in here at any time.
And sure enough that night I’m wrapped up in my little America, it gets too hot, the sleeping bag is off of me. And I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing, I can feel this thing across me. It’s this big around and it’s right across my chest here.
So I freak out, and I manage to get it with my left hand and I throw it off of me. But as I throw it, I roll with it. So now I manage to get it pinned down with my left hand. I have it pinned down on the ground like this and I try to get my right arm free so I can pin it down with my right arm, but I can’t move my right arm. And this is when I realize I’ve actually pinned down my own right arm.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: What had happened was my arm had fallen asleep and it was across me like this.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: So there actually was no snake. And at this time ‑ speaking of media ‑ the only thing that I could understand from anybody, I could barely understand the language, the only word I understood was the word they used for me. And the word they used for me was an English word that they had borrowed, which was “white man.” And so they would just say, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, white man,” and then I would hear just laughter roaring.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: And this was my primary encouragement to learn the language very quickly and so on.
What I realized was that they had no idea who I was. I was just the white man that they could laugh at and so on. But then I started to realize that that was basically true for everybody in these villages. This is a situation in which your entire identity is made in your face‑to‑face relationships with other people. And we have become such a mediated society that we’ve completely lost sight of what that even means.
So you come to a conference like this and you are instantly displaying to people in numerous ways who you are by the nametag you’re wearing, the institution you’re associated with, all of that based on a print technology that wouldn’t be possible without those little symbols on your nametag.
Not to mention your identity cards and all that type of stuff that declare you a US citizen or whatever it might be. Even your clothes are sending a certain message. So even when you walk through the airport people will be able to identify certain things about you just by the clothes you’re wearing.
You go to a village like this and you lose all of that. And locally, the people themselves also are primarily negotiating their own identities in these face‑to‑face relationships. I’ll give you a few examples of this, which has really brought home to me in the following 10 years since after that first event, in a sequence of events that the locals now refer to as “number talk.”
What happened about 10 years ago was, just after I arrived, the government got serious about running this very remote series of villages, using bureaucratic paper‑based government. And so they went in and they actually charted every single village in the area with GPS. They actually carried around a GPS unit, marked down each of the villages.
And then they began taking a census in which every house was numbered, every person in the house got their own number as well, and they were able to count the units. And this allowed them to determine how much funding the village would get. So there was a whole formula for how much funding each village gets.
The impact of this was really tremendous in the next 10 years. The first thing that happened was they actually started eliminating their old villages, which looked like this, and are actually based on relationships. If you were really close to somebody you would face your door towards them, and if not, you would face it away from them. And instead you can see they arranged their houses almost by the book, in a linear format. And each of these houses is actually numbered just like the census book.
And if you go there today and you ask them, “Why did you build your village like this?” they’ll give you a one word answer: “Census.” And then you can see how it maps onto the census here.
And then during the census exercise itself a really interesting thing happened. They were having a really hard time getting people to say their names. They would go around and they would say, “What’s your name?” And people would be all confused. They didn’t know what their name was.
Now that sounds crazy. How could that be? But if you think about all the names that you have, you probably are referred to by at least 10 names, if not more. Imagine if somebody then came to you, and you had no idea which one was your real name, and said, “What’s your real name?”
They actually would go to some of the people there and they’d say, “What’s your name?” and they would say the word for mother, or father, or brother, because that’s what people called them in the village. And then suddenly they were like, “No, no, what’s your name?” And they’d just get totally confused by that whole idea.
So they ended up adopting another English phrase called “census name.” And now if you go there and you ask people what your name is, they’ll say, “You mean my census name?” So that’s where that comes from.
Meanwhile, people refer to this as “number talk” because their idea is that it’s numbers that talk to the state. And this becomes a certain kind of mediated reality, and they try to cook the numbers in a way. But this goes on to even more levels in terms of how print and the book were actually mediating their society.
This is what a dispute looked like prior to the incoming of this government bureaucracy. You can see what happens is when there is a dispute, everybody meets in an open area, everybody talks about it, everybody has a chance to talk and so on. But in the new era of print, they have an actual law book in which there’s a series of laws. And when people have a conflict, they’re taken into the courthouse and they’re measured against this static group of laws.
And this turns everything quite dramatically. Suddenly the focus is on the individual and the relation to a piece of paper. And their relation to the letter of the law, as opposed to their relationship with the people that are actually in conflict with.
The whole point of this is to say that media are not just tools. They are just means of communication but in fact they mediate relationships. When media changed, relationships changed. That makes today an especially interesting time. So Marshall McLuhan might say we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
So today you look around and you see a Flickr here and a Twitter there and you have to recognize that this is a new way of relating emerging. So I’ll just give you a quick little tail from the new mediascape and then I’ll go into some more stuff about YouTube in particular and then 4chan.
So here’s a little story from the new mediascape. This is like the million‑dollar story. OK, so the reason why it’s a million dollar story is a million dollars is what it costs to make a 30 second commercial spot for the Super Bowl, which is a big event obviously. And so Doritos had an idea of how they could leverage the new mediascape to make it a lot cheaper.
So they just created a contest they allowed people to upload videos of their own little 30‑second spot and this ended up being the winning commercial. When they interviewed these guys about how they made it and what was involved, they found out that it cost them $12.79 to create their commercial, which is roughly the cost of three bags of Doritos that they had to break during the filming of it.
It was very successful. It was rated fourth by USA Today on their ad meter. So in terms of affecting the audience it was fourth. It did very well, despite it’s low price. But it turns out it’s $2.7 million to air the commercial, which brings the total cost to…
[laughter] Michael Wesch: So the interesting thing about this though is that they asked these advertisers why do you spend so much money on this 30‑second spot and they say basically it’s water cooler talk. We want to be the thing that people are talking about the next day after Super Bowl. Well, the next day after the Super Bowl, if you check the blogosphere, the number one video in blogosphere actually costs zero dollars to produce.
I know that because that was the video that I made that was mentioned here in the interim. Those of you who haven’t seen it, this is just… I’ll just show you a quick 30‑seconds of it here. It’s this one where it’s sort of a history… Thanks. It’s like a history of digital text. Starting with written texts and what it look like in terms of written text. And then the changes that are brought about as digital text comes onto the scene.
I’m just speeding up here. You don’t have to watch the film but the basic idea here is that there’s some things I’ll cover a little bit later in this talk. We’re talking about blogs, YouTube, tagging, Wikipedia, and so on. All changing things in such a way that the Web is no longer linking information but it’s about linking people.
[music] Michael Wesch: That means that we’re going to have to rethink a whole lot of things in our culture. This is all actually inspired by my work in New Guinea, which I think surprises people but that’s what this is really all about. That’s why I thought that you’d have to re‑think things, no just like governance and privacy and commerce, I think everybody thinks of, but also love, family and ourselves.
[Indistinct voice] Michael Wesch: We’ll get to that later.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: So the interesting story behind this so is not just this sort of move the video itself but what happens afterwards. So the interesting thing about this is it was made in the basement of this house in the middle of Kansas. So here you have a video that competed with $2.6 million massive productions and it was created in the basement of this house in Kansas.
It was done in collaboration with a guy in Cote d’Ivore ‑‑ in the Ivory Coast ‑‑ because he had uploaded the music that you heard there with creative commons license. We’re collaborating across time and space. And this was then taken on Friday. I uploaded it on a Wednesday and you see by Friday I had 253 views and the reason why there’s a screen shot of this is because I was just blown away that more than 200 people had seen this.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: And in anthropology that’s a really big deal when more than 200 read your work.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: So, I sent this to my department head and she was thrilled. We had a party that night and she was telling everybody. She was like you won’t believe…
[laughter] Michael Wesch: Then this is by the next day. This is Saturday and you can see we had over a 1,000 views. We normally think about user‑generated content and that’s what this is. But what’s really interesting is what happened next. This showed me that there was a lot more going on here.
And that was, the reason why it was growing exponentially was that it had been “dugg” ‑ you know, Digg is a site where people can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down ‑ the good stuff kind of rises to the top. It literally gets dugg up to the top. And here you can see it was rising right to the front page of Digg. Digg is just one example of what you might call user‑generated filtering.
So there you can see it on the front page. The list is of course… It was also floating around Del.ici.ous and you can see the top two links there for the most popular Web 2.0 links that day were from Del.ici.ous. So this is a situation where people are just going to the video, tagging it with Web 2.0, anthropology, whatever it might be and organizing the Web as they do it.
So this is what you might call user‑generated organization for what’s great about this. I mean, that’s nifty in itself but what’s interesting about that is that Tazz is being tagged, a lot of you in this room are probably following tags yourself on the Del.ici.ous. You might be following the tag Web 2.0, like a lot of people are and then that will instantly come to your home page the instant that somebody tags it.
So this then you might call user‑generated distribution. So what we see emerging here is basically an alternative to the massive, mass media machine that we have existed with for decades here in the US. It now has like a valid competitor, valid alternative in the user‑generated landscape here.
So then it goes through out the blogosphere and this is where humans and machines are interacting without knowing it because every time somebody links it in the blogosphere it’s getting counted by Technorati.
That’s what creates the top 20 lists that you see on viralvideochart.com as well as on Technorati. Here you can see it was, this was number four and this is Super Bowl Sunday morning. I woke up and it was number four and I was just blown away by that.
My wife and I just sat down and we started hitting refresh, refresh, refresh.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: We were really worried about the viral videos from the Super Bowl coming in that night. So we thought, if we can only get the number one before the Super Bowl and here you can see this is about noon that day it was number one.
This is then the next day after the Super Bowl and you can see not only was it number one, but it was well about the others. In fact, two through 20 almost entirely are Super Bowl commercials. So this is what you might call user‑generated ratings and this also works with Google, of course. Because every time you make a link on Google, it’s just sort of accidental collaboration with machines that’s going on all around us right now.
And this is what’s driving something that can be made in a basement in Kansas to have millions of views because commented on thousands of times and creating then this alternative mediascape.
So the question then is: do you look at this interconnected mediascape that creates all this collaboration in multiple ways. So this is just like a month after it was created. You can see it was translated into 12 languages. That spread it worldwide.
The interesting thing about this is that at the center of this user‑generated landscape is us, which means that this is not just a technological revolution. This is a cultural revolution. So that’s why I say that we had to rethink all the things.
Now, there’s a certain thought bias to media. People talk about media bias in terms of Fox News and that kind of stuff, but I’m not talking about content, I’m talking about the medium itself. There’s a long history of studies of this now going back four and five decades of very serious study. But even going back much further than that we’ve come to realize that the biases are things like this.
So there’s an intellectual bias to different media. So for example just for a real basic example take the example of like communicating with smoke signals versus communicating with a book. Obviously, there’s going to be an intellectual bias. You can’t recount Plato using smoke signals. Right?
So that’s a very basic bias of media. There’s emotional biases. You can’t convey the same emotions in different media. That’s why when you have something really important to tell somebody you’ll often think very carefully about what medium you’re going to use. There’s special and temporal biases.
We saw that in New Guinea, just in a sense of face to face communication is spatially biased towards how far your voice can reach, and temporally biased towards the now, because it doesn’t last, other than how people remember it and carry it on. Whereas print has a long temporal bias, because it stays static over a long time, and spatially, it can travel over long distances.
These create certain biases of the media. Then, there’s sensory biases. Some media are visual. Others are auditory, and so on. There’s political biases, in the sense that some media are accessible to some, and not accessible to others. There’s social biases, in that every medium creates a social scene around it, in terms of how you engage it, how you receive it, how you create it.
Ultimately, this is where it gets interesting. When you add all that up, there’s actually metaphysical biases to media. They actually make you think about space, and time, and the world differently, especially as they start to seep into our institutions. That then leads to different understandings of what information is, what knowledge is, and so on. These are epistemological biases.
Here’s a nice summary of this: Lee Rainie was talking about the effects of new media, and this is the basic summary of what he had to say. He said, just for example, you have the role of experts challenged by new voices, enabled by more open platforms for the dissemination of ideas. You have new institutions emerge to deal with the social, cultural, and political changes. There’s a struggle to revise social and legal norms, especially around the changing environment of intellectual property.
We all have seen this happening. It’s happening all around us. Concepts of identity and community multiply and transform. New forms of language arise. We’ve seen all of this recently, but, of course, he was actually talking about the printing press. This is just one example, going back 500 years, and here we are in this situation.
The question is, what are the biases of this media environment? How is it changing us? And the great question for you guys, because you guys right on the front lines of actually creating this environment is how can we create an environment that creates the types of community that we want to create, and the types of people we want to create, and so on.
And so, I started studying this new media environment here, by just watching my own students. I had this great sort of research lab, and it’s just in my classroom. You sort of get off this sideways. You can’t just come directly at them and start asking them questions about how they use media and all that stuff. That’s interesting stuff, but it doesn’t get at the real changes that are happening, and the bigger picture stuff. If any of you do ethnography, you know how you have to go at it sideways.
Here’s a series of questions that was very revealing to me, that aren’t going at it directly, but are still very interesting. Here’s question one: How many of you do not actually like school? Over half of them raised their hands to that question.
Then I say, how many do not like learning, and of course you get no hands. So then, we have this problem, because we’ve created this institution that’s actually designed for learning, and yet the people who like learning don’t like the institution. It’s actually true with professors, as well.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: Then there’s other problems, right? The students are Facebooking through their classes. They bring their laptop to class. They’re not working on class stuff. This is actually a spur of the moment thing. Just as we were taking this picture, her IM popped up, so obviously this is a common practice for her. They buy $100 textbooks they never open. They pay for class, but often don’t show up.
We did a survey, and found that they complete about 49% of the readings assigned to them, and they find that only 26% are relevant to their lives. So, there’s this huge disconnect in our schools, and the question is, what is this all about?
Here’s the interesting thing: You look at this room here, everybody’s tuned out, and dazed, and so on. The same group of people that we might say are having this problem of significance show up in this context like this.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: We have a camera on them, and there’s the contrast.
I was looking for an answer as to why this would be, and I found a perfect quote for this, and here it is: “What we are encountering is a panicky, and almost hysterical attempt to escape from the deadly anonymity of modern life. The prime cause is not vanity, but the craving of people that feel their personality sinking lower and lower into the world, indistinguishable atoms to be lost in the mass of civilization.”
I don’t know if anybody recognizes that. That’s actually from 1926. There’s a long history of this sort of disconnect, this feeling of insignificance in the world. He was actually talking about city life. Adding to that, you might say that there’s sort of… We can do a history of insignificance here. It’s not just about city life, but the assembly line, in which people started to feel like automatons, sort of anonymous functionaries in this big machine.
This allowed us to expand and build these massive suburbia areas here, and we’re so disconnected, we’re only connected by roads, and of course TVs and radios. And then, the TV actually becomes the home of our culture. All significant conversations about our culture occur right here, on the TV. And so, therefore, it’s not just the conversations of the culture, but conversations of significance that happen here, and it’s a one‑way conversation.
You have to be on TV to have a voice. You have to be on TV to be significant. And so, obviously, you’re ready. You’re like, “Just let me on TV. Remind me that I’m real.”
Something like that.
By the 1990s, we were just bombarded with imagery like this. 1980s, actually. This is the MTV world, right? Every one of these images is posted from MTV, the barrage of logos. This is actually my journal from when I was 17, in 1992. You can see, I was very much part of the MTV generation.
If you guys remember, everybody was talking about the MTV generation back then. It was things like, they have short attention spans, because they can’t last through a four‑minute video. They’re very materialistic, and we were. We spent so much money as an age group. We’re narcissistic, and one of the theories about why we’re narcissistic is because all that stuff that was being thrown at us from the TV was designed for us. That’s a very flattering thing. When you’re bombarded with million dollar images.
It costs $3.6 million to produce 30 seconds of TV, and it’s all for me? It’s very flattering, and so this kind of narcissism emerges.
But on the other hand, we’re also not easily impressed, because we’re just bombarded with all of this stuff all of the time. There’s this great line about this. “In the midst of a fabulous array of historically unprecedented and utterly mind‑boggling stimuli, whatever.”
[laughter] Michael Wesch: That’s from Thomas de Zengotita. That’s a really great book called “Mediated.” I highly recommend it to anybody.
In the midst of trying to figure out where we’re going, I decided to do a brief history of “Whatever.” So I started mining the literature, doing Google searches to find out when the word whatever was used, and how it’s changed over time, and things like that. Basically what I found is that pre‑1960, whatever is generally ‑‑ it just generally means, “That’s what I meant.”
It’s sort of like you say something, and then somebody repeats it back to you, but in different words, and you just say, “Whatever. That’s what I meant.” That’s all it meant.
By the late ’60s, though, it started to become the “Whatever, man,” sequence. It’s like, “I don’t care. Whatever,” and an indifference started to emerge. Of course, this is at the beginning of TV, and especially the beginnings of color TV.
By the 1990s, though, this total bombardment of imagery, and you end up with this MTV generation, and you have not only whatever, but also the indifferent “meh” emerges. This is where The “Simpsons” clips come in. This is 1992. Some people claim this is the first use of the word “meh.”
[clips begins] Bart Simpson: Nothing you say can upset us. We’re the MTV generation! Lisa Simpson: We feel neither highs nor lows. Homer Simpson: Really? What’s it like? Lisa Simpson: Eh.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: You can tell it wasn’t quite a meh, right? It was more like, “Eh.”
This is 2001. They really spell it out.
[clip plays] Homer Simpson: [excited] Would you like to go to Block‑o‑land?!! Bart and… Lisa Simpson: Meh. Homer Simpson: You leave me the impression that… Bart Simpson: We said meh. Lisa Simpson: M‑E‑H. Meh.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: It’s after that that on forums all over the Internet meh starts to appear. It started to appear in 1992, 1993, but it really started going in 2001. In fact, Harper Collins, just last year, admitted meh into their dictionary, so it’s now official.
1992, back to the MTV generation, this was the real anthem of the day. Kurt Cobain, “And I find it hard, it’s hard to find, oh well, whatever, nevermind.” It’s the perfect anthem of our generation.
Neil Postman in ’84 said something really appropriate here. He said, “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.”
And, again, from Kurt Cobain: “I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.” And, a lot of faculty actually repeat this line when they see this. They get a sense like ‑‑ they think what the students are waiting for.
So I mentioned earlier that this barrage of imagery is actually very flattering, right, and it creates a sense of narcissism. And so even as we’re sort of bombarded into passivity ‑ there’s no way to act on the images that are being thrown at us ‑ we’re definitely ready to get out there.
So in 1992, the real world starts to emerge and reality TV starts to take off, and that’s the ground for what you see in the “American Idol” frenzy today: People just desperate and ready to get on screen, to have some sort of significance.
And they really think that they deserve to be there. And so, by the late ’90s to the present, there’s a new transition in “whatever,” and it’s become much more sort of self focused and, “I am the most important person on the planet. Whatever! You don’t matter, I matter,” kind of thing. And you see that, not in the “Simpsons,” but on “South Park.” So here’s like a famous one.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: So you might have missed it. He said, “Whatever, I will be what I want.” And then this was, I think, a song that’s really gotten popular on YouTube lately, but actually started on MTV.
[song plays] Michael Wesch: You see the self‑righteousness, right? There’s a new self‑righteousness there. All right. So you get the added narcissism to it all.
And then, Jean Twenge recently published a book called, “Generation Me,” which sort of tried to capture all of this. You can see the title up there: “Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Because as they have rushed on the stage, they think that they deserve to be there, and then when there are not, they’re all like shocked ‑ you know, like, “Are you serious?”
Do you guys watch “American Idol?” It’s crazy. Like just all these people who think they totally deserve to be in a spotlight, and then they’re shocked when they’re not, and they’re in tears, and so on.
Now, this is actually very serious, though. Here’s a whole series of questions that will really bring it home. It’s not just about sort of the play on “American Idol” and so on ‑ but ask yourself these questions. Imagine asking yourself these questions now versus in the mid‑’80s. What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East, or the rate of inflation, crime or unemployment? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, etcetera?
And, this is from Neil Postman. He says, “I shall take the liberty of answering for you. You plan to do nothing.” And so we live in a world in which we’re sort of impotent. We want to be engaged and we’re sort of following the news with all this rigor, and yet, ultimately, we’re impotent in our actions. We have nothing to do.
Meanwhile, there’s something in the air that maybe is transforming what you’re seeing. And that something in the air is actually the digital artifacts of roughly of 1.4 billion people communicating. It’s literally in the air. It’s floating in the air all around you, for instance. At least you can sort of grab it with your cell phone or your laptop or whatever.
And when you add it all up, there are big numbers I can throw at you: 70 exabytes will be produced this year. That’s 70 billion gigabytes. It’s more than the entire collection of Library of Congress. A lot more. In fact, it’s 518,000 libraries worth.
Meanwhile, we’re testing our students like this when there’s all this information floating around. It’s the equivalent of 12,000 gigabytes per person. It’s equivalent to a stack of books 350 feet total. And, yet, less than 0.01% of it will be on paper.
So that was just all a metaphor, when I’m talking about how many books it would be. And it’s important to recognize it as a metaphor, because digital information is different. You guys are all trying to come to terms with that, and what it means, and what you can create out of these differences.
So, Marshall McLuhan once said: “We look at the present through a rear‑view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” There’s lots of great examples we can bring up with this, and one of them is just this idea that here we are in the information superhighway. We have to use metaphor constantly to understand what’s going on, because it’s a new thing.
So here we are in the information superhighway, looking into the rear‑view mirror, and we translate all the data that’s coming in through our screens into something we call a desktop, which is a metaphor. We put folders on that desktop ‑ again, a metaphor. We put documents inside the folders and so on.
And it’s only recently that we’ve realized that folder even was a metaphor. I think most people didn’t really get it, but it was a metaphor until they saw tagging. And then, they thought, “Oh, you can do this differently.”
And it’s not that we are going give up folders, because folders are actually a great technology. They’re actually an invention, too. They are not that old themselves, even in the physical space. But, when we get sorted of blinded by the rear‑view mirror, we don’t see the new possibilities.
In terms of the Web, of course, there was the Web pages era. So, in the early days of the Web ‑‑I think probably most of the people in this room remember a certain frustration with the creation of Web pages, or even like working for somebody who wanted you to create a web page and like really had the image of a page, a paper, and you were to create something like that.
The response to this was to create more things that were more dynamic. Does anybody remember the DHTML days? Yeah, when it was like really big deal. I will just zoom in a little bit here. Now, look at the new metaphor that was being brought in. It was said with the advent of DHTML, Web pages are one step closer to its cousin, TV, in terms of special effects.
So the new metaphor was like “let’s copy TV.” First, it was, “Let’s copy print, now let’s copy TV.” And you can see down here at the bottom. These things would make your images fly, light up, turn static, slow down loading time.
So this is what people were after. But the problem with this code, it was really complex and it often went into one document. It wasn’t like separate into multiple documents. And so form and content became inseparable, and it was basically almost impossible to upload content without knowing a whole lot. And, just even updating the content was really difficult, because you have to go into the code to actually update anything.
So Tim Berners Lee was really upset by this. And, by the late ’90s, he had a series of talks, not just one. The first one was December ’97. He said, “Look, it’s not supposed to be a glorified television channel,” because he had actually set it up so that people could share information and this kind of thing. He thought that people had really missed it.
If you click on one of these, you could really get a sense of the problems, because here ‑ I’ll just go into special document effects. And you can see it has like “IE” on the sides. What that means is that it only works with IE. And then you had to put this other script in there that would actually tell it, like, “If it’s not IE, then do this.” You’re basically building like two and something even three different websites all in one document ‑ really complex.
So these browser wars ultimately led to a new dedication in standards. And the reason I use the Firefox emblem is because towards the end of the nineties, Netscape and IE were like in this race basically to adapt themselves to DHTML, to have more effects and all this type of stuff, at the expense of all standards. So CSS wasn’t even really adopted. Even though it was created many years earlier, it wasn’t truly adopted, because there were racing to accept more and more DHTML.
So Netscape actually scrapped everything, rebuilt from scratch, and that become the base of what is now Firefox. And what happened then is that with form separated from content, you no longer needed to know complicated code to create content for the Web.
In that, once the standards were in place, CSS was alive; XML was able to grow at that point, and suddenly you had this very simple form. And this from Blogger, of course. Anybody can fill out this form and hit the publish button.
And, I’ve timed this before, it takes like 19 seconds to set up a blog these days. It’s just that easy to create your own website now. So, of course, it’s no surprise that there’s 184 million blogs today, and that’s almost 184 million more than there were in 2003 ‑ we are keeping track. And, I suppose it’s because we’re ready. We are just like desperate to come on and participate in the culture that we are a part of.
So, here we are in this new mediascape. I want to make a big point here. And that is that the medium shapes the message. So as we look back at this, each one of these is a different type of community with different ways of relating to each other and so on.
The reason why I’ve put this in the blogger format, is because blogger itself, was a big aha moment on the Web. It had just a signal box. The early blogs… first off you had to know HTML, if you were doing really early blogging.
And then there was a few platforms that emerged. Those early platforms, usually had a title space and then a link space, and then a comment space. The early blogs, were actually commenting on material that was already out on the Web. Because you’re sort of required to put this little link in the link space.
But Blogger did something different, they just said, “We’re just going to give you an empty box.” So you can do whatever you want with it. That led to the proliferation of all these different types of communications on blogs.
So the medium shapes the message, it shapes the conversation, it shapes the possibilities then, for community, for identity construction, and ultimately for self‑awareness, so that the medium, the media that you guys create, those sort of platforms, that you guys create for people to connect on, are actually shaping really profound things in people’s lives.
So this is where things will get interesting. We’re going to jump in here, and just look around in this new mediascape to see how different media shape the way we connect with each other today.
So first we’ll jump in to YouTube. Some of you may have seen some of these clips before. First off, we’ll start off…
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: This is just a quick tour of what’s on YouTube. So first off, it’s not just young people right? Here’s 92‑year‑old, Erving Fields, signing about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: But the most common videos on YouTube, are actually home videos. About 33% of video’s are just people uploading stuff from their family and just sharing these videos.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: So this is where it gets fun right? People start remixing this stuff.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: What’s really interesting, sounds sophisticated. It’s actually a bit more sophisticated, so this is obviously like a hip‑hop remix of the thing. These are done by amateurs because it’s that easy to do.
Even a better example, this is a free demo version of this Fuity Loop loop software that you can get online. And this is De Andre Cortez Way, April 2007, creates this little riff along with this dance stand. You guys may have heard this before. Post this to YouTube under MySpace, and within months, everybody around the country is doing this dance same.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: These are prisoners in the Philippines. This is an MIT Professor and some graduate students, who studied for his historical theory. These are high school teachers, and then there’s all these remixes too. This is the “Harry Potter” version. This is the “Lion King” version. Vincent, Winnie the Pooh, Spongebob, and this goes on and on.
So obviously, the major sort of record labels are on to this, and they decide to buy “Soldier Boy” and make this video.
In the video, you sort of mocks their own kind of cluelessness, in the new mediascape right? You’ll see the imagery here, showing how the video spreads, and ultimately, finally found its way to these record executives.
You’ll see the use of cell phones and so on. But what really gets me excited about YouTube, is another aspect of it, and that’s that about 10,000 video’s a day are actually addressed to the YouTube community.
These are people that are getting on the webcam and talking to each other. It’s a unique form of community. Me and about 15 students have been getting involved in the YouTube community. There’s Rebecca Roth, from 2007. She immediately started coming up with insights into the YouTube community. Here’s what Rebecca was displaying and this is really cool.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: We started really thinking carefully about what it means to create a community through a webcam, and then through a screen. Everything is literally screened in this community, right? We started thinking about what that means and came up with a series of insights about what it means for identity and self‑awareness, and so on.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: This is Marshal McLuhan, talking about recognition, and it applies well to YouTube, even though he’s not talking about YouTube.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: So you can see new types of self‑awareness emerging. I’ll talk a little more about that in a second. There’s also, not just while you’re creating the videos, then there’s this other side where you’re watching the videos, and there’s a certain anonymity in watching because the people you’re watching can’t see you, and this leads to some interesting effects.
First off, Lev Grossman once said that, “Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone. Never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.”
I’ll show you an example of this. It’s just a random example here. The comment comes like: “Douchebags, you suck.” This is responded by Wingman8788, “You guys are so gay, it sucks.” Qwertyu121 says: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Frickyougirl114 says, “YouTube comments make me angry. Grr.” Then Qwertyu121 responds: “Then don’t comment on YouTube.” It’s interesting.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: So there’s this anonymity and physical distance, and the rare and ephemeral femoral dialogue. It creates hatred as a public performance, but it also creates a space, where people have the freedom to experience humanity, their co‑humanity without fear, or anxiety, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: So it’s almost like this state of aesthetic arrest where you really connect with people and you know in our society we kind of have this cultural inversion or cultural tension, you might say.
On the one hand, we really have a lot of individualism, independence and commercialization all around us, and yet we seek then the opposites, right, so we’re just saturated with individualism and independence and commercialization.
Therefore we want community, relationships and authenticity. And this becomes a certain tension and in reality it turns out we want sort of both of these or some balance of these. And these are constantly in tension.
Now, what you see in new media a lot is that people want to find connections, bridging their isolated lives, but they also see these connections as constraints on their individualism, on their independence. So, ultimately, they want connection without constraint. That’s like the ultimate. YouTube actually offers this possibility, as you’ll see here.
[YouTube clip plays] Michael Wesch: All right, so that’s like a little brief version of how the medium of YouTube effects our self‑awareness, our ways that we negotiate identity and community and so on. And then you think about something like Twitter, just as a counter‑example, and think about what you’re doing in those 140 characters.
So one version of what you’re doing is life casting, and the nice thing about Twitter is it’s always with you. You can text to it from your cell phone, and that means it’s very different than what we see in YouTube. It’s very different than a lot of other media that we are familiar with throughout our lives. So you can actually sort of lifecast your life out there.
Jay Rosen likes to think of it instead as mindcasting. Actually, he hates lifecasting in which you tell people about brushing your teeth. Instead, suggests that we actually sort of have quality content out there. That’s what he calls mindcasting.
Lisa Reichelt has this great idea that in fact what we’re doing is creating ambient intimacy, that these little details of our lives are sort of connecting us. So even while you’re sitting here, you might get buzzed with a little Twitter update and you can check it and it’ll say, “Just woke the kids up,” or something like that. You’re kind of ambiently connected with your family, even while you’re sitting here in this room.
But what’s really interesting is when all of these updates start to line up. Laura Fitten has this great quote about this. She says, “In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself,” because you end up having this record.
If you just go to your own Twitter page, you have your own little record, all written in little 140 character little blips, about your life and you see yourself back to yourself, as you present yourself to other people because this is a very public space.
So it’s a very interesting mode of self‑awareness. And there’s one other idea floating around out there from Theresa Sindt that you’re actually becoming a microcelebrity. You’re managing your microcelebrity‑ness, whatever you might want to say.
And this is actually true for everybody. This isn’t just people who have thousands of followers and follow very few people. This is really true for everybody in that most people who are on Twitter end up having several people following them. Maybe it’s only five, maybe it’s 10, whatever.
But you’ll have people following you who you don’t know, or you just barely know. And in a sense then, when you use Twitter, you’re sort of releasing press releases of yourself out to these people. Everybody in a sense is famous, has that weird relationship with others where they know you and you don’t know them. So that’s kind of what Twitter can do.
Now here’s where things get really interesting is in this world called 4chan. How many people go to 4chan? Ok, there’s a couple. So this is a really great, interesting place. We’re actually going to zoom here on a random board.
What 4chan is is just an image‑based bulletin board, or image board. And the field where you upload your image looks like this. And you can see there’s name, email, subject, comment and then you upload a file. And it ends up looking like this. Now, one interesting thing about this is on the “/b/” Forum, this is where the medium becomes interesting.
They actually have basically no rules for posting, including you don’t have to use a name at all. You don’t have to use your name. You can change your name each time you post. You don’t stay signed in and registered. So this is a very different type of thing than on Twitter, where you have a fixed identity. It’s also very different than on YouTube where your identity is basically designated by your face and so on.
So here you have the basic comment field. You end up with a little dancer like this. So the forum is called “/b/.” So here somebody has shown up and they say “Is this /b/?” and then somebody responds, “No, this is Patrick.”“Wait, is this /b/?” It says, “No, this is Patrick.” And it keeps going and going. This is actually from Spongebob. And it keeps going. It just keeps going and going and going.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: This is the type of banter you get. And so /b/ and 4chan itself sort of becomes this interesting world where everybody is anonymous. And so they actually become sort of a collective known as Anonymous. And also, each individual is also known as Anonymous. And this becomes like the primordial ooze from which so much of Internet culture is born, because it’s this very creative space.
Think about when you’re at your most creative is usually when you sort of let go of your identity, right? Usually you’re drunk. And you sort of like forget it. You know to forget who you are and then this enormous creativity comes out, great jokes, funny stuff. 4chan is almost always like that.
And so they started posting pictures of cats with funny sayings on them. And this would tend to happen on Saturdays, so they started calling this Caturday, and Caturdays were born. And a lot of you have probably heard of this because they’re the LOLcats that you see all over the place . There’s now a whole website dedicated to them at icanhascheezburger.com.
But here, it’s Caturday. They have a whole series. I tried to select ones that kind of represent the type of humor that you would see on this site. Now think about this, this is really interesting. I’m glad you guys all know what that is. I didn’t want to show it. But if you don’t know what it is, just look it up. Or not. Or not.
What’s interesting is this is totally anonymous. When people post, you don’t even know who they are. And so they have this whole language that’s emerged to determine in‑group and out‑group. And it looks a little bit like this. And when it gets really deep, it looks like this. And it’s the same thing that I just put up.
So there’s all these new languages emerging. I think this would d be a good time to show this. They have all these shared memes and things that go around. So one of them is they have this great book from Dragonball Z, which you guys may have heard before. You get a sense of who’s visiting the forum by the memes that they write.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: Ok. Now, what’s interesting about that then is whenever people ask them like who are you and how many people are in anonymous, they always say “over 9,000.” Again whenever anybody asks for a quantity of anything they say over 9,000.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: And then they go out to another people’s forums and other people’s blogs and they troll there, right, so they call it trolling. Where they go out and they basically say these obscure little things, or really outrageous things, to basically get a rise out of people. So in one of the most famous examples recently, they went to a forum on child predators on Oprah and they left a comment there and Oprah responded here.
[clip plays] Oprah: Let me read you something, which was posted on our message boards from someone who claims to be a member of a known pedophile network. It said this, “It doesn’t forgive, it does not forget. His group has over 9000 penises and they are all raping children.”
[clip ends] Michael Wesch: She is like very serious about this. Right?
[laughter] Michael Wesch: And of course, the people at 4chan, they call themselves /b/tards because the place is called /b/. They call themselves /b/tards. They just go crazy.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: And this goes on and on. There’s hundreds of those online if you want to look at those. So they come up with these great lines. You know they are actually in that sort of primordial ooze. There’s all sorts of insights there about the nature of Internet culture itself.
So here they say, “We are anonymous, we cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we deliver your mail, we are everyone, we are no one.” And then they go on, “United as one, divided by zero, we are legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget.”
But there is a certain sort of insight there about, in a way we are all anonymous online. It’s a really weird experience in the sense that these digital artifacts from 1.4 billion people are sort of floating in through our screens and stuff.
We connect with them generally not knowing where they came from. So we are all connecting anonymously in many ways, and not always, but often. So it’s an interesting insight there and you know leads to that.
Now, maybe they might be most famous for the past year for their protest of Scientology and there’s this great, great image that you see floating around about this. “Oh! Fuck, the Internet is here.”
And you can see there actually all their sort of playfulness comes out in real life as well when we have these real life meetings. So here is actually a LOLcat spelled out on a banner. And Fox News picked up on this recently and just to the great amusement of 4chan‑ers said that they were hackers on steroids. But they are not really, I mean they are great hackers and in fact if you are thinking about visiting 4chan, do it on somebody else’s computer.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: The first time I went there, I just went onto 4chan and within two seconds all of my windows just collapsed, my computer turned off and then restarted and informed me that I had a virus and that I should download Microsoft Antivirus 2009, which actually doesn’t exist. That was the virus itself. So it basically shut down my computer and then scared me into thinking I have a virus, so I would download it. So they do all sort of interesting things like that.
But, what’s really interesting is they clearly like this really interesting culture but ultimately they are not a they because everybody is anonymous. So you can’t really identify who is part of it and who is not.
Chris Landers did a story on them. He found out they are only a group in the sense that a flock of birds is a group, that are traveling in the same direction. At any given moment more birds can join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely. Again think of the way that sort of reveals so much about the Internet everywhere, right?
I mean most internet groups are actually like this in the sense that they are very rare that there are like these fixed groups that you really belong to and in the sense of that sort of tight community and instead we are almost like flocking to different things throughout the web.
What’s really interesting is where they’re going with this. They say, “We will stop at nothing until we have achieved our goal: permanent destruction of the identification role.” Meaning that they’ve actually grabbed on to this idea of anonymity as a virtue.
It goes all the way back to the 1920s poets like T.S. Eliot, who were also into anonymity as an aesthetic ideal. They felt like we were becoming too much of a cult of celebrity, and even T.S. Eliot felt like too much of a celebrity. People would flock to him and read his work only because it’s T.S. Eliot, not to actually see the work. T.S. Eliot hated this, and actually wanted to be more anonymous.
Here we see, 80 years later, the same thing. People battling against this cult of celebrity. They do this in a number of ways. One of the most famous, or visually interesting ones is what they do on Second Life. They have a whole group of people that attack Second Life at various times.
For example, this is an event for Anshe Chung, who was the millionaire Second Lifer. She’s sort of a real estate mogul inside Second Life. CNET set up this very official looking press conference to talk to her about this, and some people on 4chan got together and decided to attack with flying penises. This totally disrupted the whole thing, of course.
[“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” plays] Michael Wesch: Now, there’s also a famous attack on John Edwards. I don’t know if you guys remember this. John Edwards had a Second Life presence, and they attacked that. You can see, down at the bottom, they have a little conversation going on. They said, “Vegeta, what does the scouter say about his power level?” and he says, “It’s over 9000!” They just keep doing this kind of thing.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. You don’t have to read this whole thing, but just note the impetus behind this. The reason why they’re doing it. This was posted to the John Edwards blog after they had blogged about this.
It says, “As the Internet has grown in popularity, a disturbing phenomena has occurred. Everyone thinks they are special. We have news for you: You aren’t special. You aren’t unique. You are a mindless horde, traversing the universe on a small ball of dirt.”
It goes on to say, “We are here to remind you of this.” Down here at the bottom, it says, “Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, we will be there. Wherever someone has an inflated ego, we will be there. We will do it through madness. We will remove you from the high place you have built for yourself.” So again, this sort of attacking, the Internet sort of celebrity narcissism that appears there.
One of the most famous examples here is Tay Zonday. I don’t know if you guys have seen this. I’ll just play a brief thing to remind you guys.
[“Chocolate Rain” plays] Michael Wesch: I don’t know if you guys would think that this could be a video that could get 33 million views, and up, and make him a millionaire, but in fact, it’s happened. The reason why is because 4chan, the people on /b/, sort of make a mockery of our cult of celebrity. They will sometimes actually pick somebody out and launch them to stardom. This is one of those examples.
Here you can see, it got so popular that YouTube had Tay Zonday Day, in which the whole front page was nothing but Tay Zonday, and if you look it up now… I forget what it is. I think it’s in the thousands of remixes of this, the Tay Zonday thing.
I think what 4chan is most famous for in the last year, though, is this thing here. Wherever someone takes themselves too seriously, they will place a link, and this has become a very common thing to do. You click on that link thinking that it’s going to be part of this serious discussion, and you get what is called “Duck Rolled.” This has transitioned into the “Rick Roll.” You guys might remember this.
[“Never Gonna Give You Up” plays] Michael Wesch: You can imagine why they would choose this, based on their sense of humor, but here’s where it gets interesting. There’s all these remixes of it, right? This is Hugh Atkins.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: This points to something even bigger and more important, in the way that this was created. He was actually using a search system on Google that actually indexes every word in every video ever stated by any politician, which allowed him to put this thing together.
This means that the capacity for making videos has now gone up tremendously. He’s John McCain with a blue screen behind him, and of course, this is just too good to pass up.
[laughter] Michael Wesch: All right. I like to think of this as a seriously playful participatory media culture. It’s not just like that people are playing around. It’s not just like what you see on 4chan, where it looks like it’s just all a bunch of play. There’s also a serious element to this. There’s a constant commentary on our culture appearing there. It’s like finally people have a way to talk back, and they’re using it.
It’s not just in terms of how easy it is to make video, and create these things that they’re doing, but also in the ubiquity of video, so for example, here’s John McCain not knowing that he’s on camera.
[clip plays] John McCain: …an old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? Bomb, bomb, bomb… Anyway… Michael Wesch: This is then three days later on YouTube. This gets picked up and made into several remixes.
Newscaster: No apologies, though, for a musical parody that many around the world took as a true sign of his thinking. John McCain: When veterans get together, veterans joke. I was with veterans, and we were joking.
[clip ends] Michael Wesch: This is what you might call a context collapse, which is happening all over in our environment, now, in a sense that you never know where you are, who you’re talking to, and where you really are, because it can be picked up at any time.
Here’s another example from the advertising world. This is from GM. You’ll see here, in a second. GM thought they could leverage this participatory media environment by allowing people to make their own commercials for the GM Tahoe. It’s real easy. Steps one, two, three, four, and then there you are. This is what was made. Stuff like this.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: Just to show you how sophisticated this can get, this is a remix, obviously using a lot of Hollywood films and repurposing them. It’s set to Regina Spektor music. You listen to the lyrics, it’s a very powerful message. Talking about slightly used parts.
There she says, “We’re living in a den of thieves, rummaging for answers.” The reason why she’s discussing this is because, in fact, the things that she has done should not be illegal, but they are, in the sense that if she ripped the DVD, it’s illegal. There are these sort of constraints on our participation, even today.
Here’s Lawrence Lessig talking about this.
[clip plays] Lawrence Lessig: We need to recognize you can’t kill the instinct that technology produces. We can only criminalize it. We can’t stop our kids from using it, we can only drive it underground. We can’t make our kids passive again, we can only make them quote “pirates.” And, is that good?
We live in this weird time, and age of prohibitions, when many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law. Ordinary people live life against the law. That’s what they are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinary to us, extraordinarily corruptive, and in a democracy, we ought to be able to do better.
[clip ends] Michael Wesch: One of my favorite things about this is actually not the video itself, which is amazing, and very artistic, and a beautiful work, but at the end, you’ll see that there’s some people’s comments. There’s all these comments on YouTube. If you read the comments under there, it says, “My God, are you doing that for a living? I’ve never seen anything like this. You’re an artist.”
To which she responds, “No, I’m a housewife.”
That’s the beauty of YouTube today, sort of the environment we have today, is that so many people are able to create for a broader public, create these beautiful things.
There’s also the possibility of creating together. We see it on Wikipedia, but we also see it, even in the video space. Here you see somebody donning the anonymous mask, Matt V. here. He actually invites people to collaborate with him.
I think by being anonymous, he actually becomes sort of a platform for this collaboration. All he asks is that people put a message on their hand, and then upload the video. Well over 2, 000 people did this, and then he was able to take all of these videos and create this final little bit.
This is kind of an interesting moment here, to think about what people will reach out to their webcams with, right? You have one message to put on your hand, and you reach up to the webcam.
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: You’ll see, generally in this age, people are thrilled that they can finally connect with each other across these great distances, right? At some level, that’s just amazing in itself. And then, of course, there’s the self‑reflection that you saw earlier. Sort of love yourself, and that kind of thing.
Also, I think whenever you see messages like this, people deliver messages like this because they don’t feel like they have truly come to fruition. These aren’t just saying, “This is the way things are.” They’re saying, “This is the way things should be. This is what we should strive for, and so on.” We’re not there yet. These are not messages of celebration, as much as, “Let’s do this.”
[clip plays] Michael Wesch: So in that context then, look at where you guys come in. So, here we are in this landscape. We have this possibility for a seriously playful participatory culture, but it’s enabled by very specific architectures of participation. Every single architecture actually elicits a different type of participation, and you guys are the ones who are creating these things.
I only want to spend two minutes on the future. Make it 20 seconds. I’ll do this really fast. Instead of telling you details, where things are going, I’ll just point out the futurists all agree on one trend, toward ubiquitous networks, ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous information, and unlimited speed. Everything, everywhere, from anywhere, on all kinds of devices.
Nobody disagrees with that. I think everybody in here would agree that that’s the general trend that we’re headed for. That means that these architectures of participation are increasingly becoming the architectures of our everyday life. It’s like information architecture is blending with the architecture of the real world, and in fact blending with the architecture of society itself.
And so, when you think about information architect, it’s not just an architect of information, but an architect of human relations. That means that you then have this capacity to build architectures for a new future of whatever.
If we go back to where we started here, in the ’60s, it was, “I don’t care, whatever you think.” In the ’90s, it became, “Whatever. I don’t care what you think.” In the future, we can hope that we can create architectures of participation that will allow people to feel a sense caring, and they’ll be able to say, “I care. Let’s do whatever it takes, by whatever means necessary.”
[music] Announcer: To hear even more presentations from the 2009 IA Summit, point your browser to boxesandarrows.com, and click on the podcast link. There you’ll find access to the iTunes feed, and more information about each presentation.
Our heartfelt thanks to the organizers and sponsors of the 10th annual IA Summit, the presenters, and of course to the global community. We look forward to feedback about future episodes that will be of greatest value to you, our listeners.
Jesse James Garrett is a noted figure in the IA community, not only for his ground breaking book Elements of User Experience, but for the essay that galvanized the community in 2002, IA Recon.
In this IA Summit Closing Plenary, given without slides while wandering amidst the audience, Jesse examines what he has learned at the conference, he thoughts on the nature of the discipline and the practitioner, and gives bold, perhaps even shocking advice for the future direction of information architecture.
The following is an outline of some of his key points; please download the audio or watch the video for the complete experience.
Jesse revisits the turbulence of the first IA Summit in Boston, lamenting that he does not see this same turbulence in the IA community right now. Warning that “the opposite of turbulence is stagnation,” he looks back at the Great Depression and compares our grandparent’s feelings of scarcity to the community’s continued reliance on categorization in its various guises (e.g. taxonomy, thesauri, etc.) for its identity.
Thanking IA leaders and the organizations that have nurtured Information Architecture, he declares that it is time to move on from the past. Leaders in IA, including himself, are notable based upon what they say about their work, not by their actual work and asks, “Do you know good IA when you see it?”
He is surprised that we don’t have schools of thought around IA. We have many ways to talk about our processes, but not about the “product of our work, a language of critique.” Until we can talk about the qualities of IA, we cannot judge the quality of the work.
No Information Architects
One of the desires of the IA community is to command respect. However, the overall value will take time to manifest itself, only reaching critical mass when “someone from this room” ascends to be CEO of an organization and creates a culture that respects the user to decimate the competition.
Jesse then puts forth his declaration that Information Architects and Interaction Designers do not exist. “There are, and only ever have been, User Experience Designers.”
He continues by breaking down UxD, examining how each element implied in the title illuminate his hypothesis – that the ephemeral and insubstantial CAN be designed independent of medium and across media. The web is just clay, he implores, and we can use many materials to create experiences.
Synthesis & Cohesion
Engagement is paramount, within any medium and across mediums. “Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as a specific goal is unique in human history.”
The varieties of engagement (e.g. the senses, mind, heart, and body) and other elements that influence the experience (e.g. capabilities, context, constraints) create the environment in which we work. UxD produces experiences that cross all of these elements, and mapping these experiences is incredibly challenging. The main goal is to synthesize them and create cohesive experiences that honor them.
Discovery, not Invention
With perception covered by visual designers, sound designers, and industrial designers, cognition and emotion are the manifest destiny of IA. User experience is not about information, rather, it is always about people and how they relate to information.
By structuring the information, User Experience Designers structure the tools that humanity uses. And, as a result, we influence how people think and feel. The final result is that those tools, in turn, shape humanity. We should embrace that responsibility.
Jesse predicts that UxD will take it’s place among fundamental human crafts. He posits that we are discovering the realities of people, their tools, and experiences rather than inventing them. With only ten years under our belts, we’ve only just begun that discovery, and he hopes that there will always be more.
Transcript of the closing plenary address delivered March 22, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, TN.
This address was written to be read aloud. I encourage you to listen to audio or watch video of the address if possible.
I recognize that being chosen to deliver the closing plenary is an honor, and I do not intend to repay that kindness by giving you a product demo.
I will not be participating in five-minute madness this year. You may consider this my 45-minute madness.
This is a different kind of talk for me. First of all, I have no slides! I kind of feel like I’m working without a net here. I can’t throw in the occasional visual pun to keep you guys paying attention. Secondly, I have no idea how long this talk is. I just finished it just before this began, so basically when I’m out of things to say, I’ll stop talking. Hopefully that will be sooner than you expected, and not later. Third, I’ve decided not to take questions at the end of this talk. My preference would be that if you have questions, don’t pose them to me. Pose them to each other. Publicly, if you can.
So if I run short, we’ll just go straight into five-minute madness and then we’ll all get to the bar that little bit sooner.
Okay, now: first-timers, please stand up.
I don’t think we do enough to recognize the importance of new voices in this community, and at this event. Those of you who were here last year may recall my comments from five-minute madness last year, where it seemed like maybe I was a little bit too hard on the first-timers for not being more active participants. What I was really trying to do was scold the old-timers for not doing more to make the first-timers feel welcome, and so I hope that those of you who are first-timers this year have been made to feel welcome by this community.
Now, before you sit down, I want to apologize to all of you, because there’s a great big chunk of this talk that is not going to mean very much to you — because I’m a ten-timer and I’ve got some things to say to my fellow ten-timers. So I’ll just get that out of the way. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rest of the conference — and now you can sit down.
So yeah, in case you guys haven’t heard, this is the tenth IA Summit. I don’t know if word got around about that. This is my tenth IA Summit. Anyone who was at that first Summit will recount for you the strange energy in that room: academics and practitioners eyeing each other warily, skeptical of what the other had to contribute. There was turbulence. (Hi Peter!) But it was productive turbulence.
I can’t say I’ve seen much turbulence at these events since then. Which ought to make all of us nervous, because the opposite of turbulence is stagnation.
In his opening keynote, Michael Wesch quoted Marshall McLuhan: “We march backward into the future.” When I saw this quote, it reminded me of the old quip that generals are always fighting the last war — which is why I think we’ve been stagnating. What war is the field of information architecture fighting?
The war we still seem to be fighting is the war against information architecture itself as a valid concept, as a meaningful part of design practices.
Almost everything you see about the IA community and IA practices — the mailing lists, the conferences, the professional organizations, the process models, the best practice patterns — they’re all optimized to answer two questions: Is this stuff for real? And is it valuable? And the answer to both questions is always, invariably, an emphatic “yes”.
IA is real. And IA is good. And that’s what we all agree on: some IA is better than no IA. But is there such a thing as “bad IA”? I mean, is it possible for an information architecture professional to do a thorough, responsible job, following all the agreed-upon best practices, and still come up with a bad solution?
I don’t think anybody knows the answer to this question. Because we’re still fighting the last war. We’re still trying to defend the answer to that question: is IA good? Is IA valuable?
Now, if you are about my age (and most of you seem to be, which I’ll come back to in a minute), your grandparents grew up in the Depression. And if your grandparents are like mine, this was an experience that shaped their behavior for the rest of their lives. They save everything: any little bit of leftover food, or a loose scrap of fabric, or a button or a screw. They save everything, because the notion of scarcity was deeply imprinted on them when they were young and became such a fundamental part of their worldview that decades later they’re still hoarding all this stuff even though the Depression’s been over… well, it took a break anyway.
Here are some of the most common terms from past IA Summit programs: taxonomy, thesaurus, controlled vocabulary, metadata, faceted classification, navigation, content management — and then there was that one year with all the talks about tagging. Like my grandparents, we cling to these things because they are what saved us. They are the tools by which we proved that yes, IA is real, and it is valuable. But that war is over. We won. And now it’s time to move on, because those comfortable, familiar things represent only part of what information architecture can be.
So it’s time to leave the nest. Thank you, Lou and Peter. Thank you, library science. For getting us off to a great start. For giving us the tools and knowledge to win a place for IA in the world. There will still be a place for library science in IA, but it’s only a part of our larger destiny.
Thank you to ASIST. Thank you to Dick Hill, and Vanessa and Jan and Carlene. This field would not be where it is without your efforts at these events, year after year. But I’m curious — show of hands: who here has ever been to any ASIST event other than an IA summit? [audience raises hands] Who here is an ASIST member? [audience raises hands] A smattering at best. ASIST has been sort of a benevolent host organism for the incubation of IA, but the relationship between ASIST and IA beyond IA Summit hasn’t really gone anywhere.
Okay, I’m debating how to do this… Name the five best-known information architects. [audience calls out various names] Now: name a work of information architecture created by one of these people. [silence] Is that a sign of a mature profession?
The names you know are notable for what they say about their work, not for the work itself. They’re not known for the quality of their work (and I’m including myself in this category).
Moreover, do you know good IA when you see it? And can different people have different ideas about the qualities of a good solution or a bad one, based on their philosophical approach to their work?
One thing I’m really surprised we don’t have yet, that I had expected to see long before now, is the emergence of schools of thought about information architecture.
Will there ever be a controversial work of information architecture? Something we argue about the merits of? A work that has admirers and detractors alike?
We have lots of ways of talking about our processes. In fact, if you look back at these ten years of the IA Summit, the talks are almost all about process. And to the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s been over questions of process: Is documentation necessary? If so, how much? Which deliverables are the right ones? Personas, absolutely essential, or big waste of time?
What we don’t have are ways of talking about the product of our work. We don’t have a language of critique. Until we have ways to describe the qualities of an information architecture, we won’t be able to tell good IA from bad IA. All we’ll ever be able to do is judge processes.
Another thing that you’ll notice from looking back over ten years of the Summit is that talks are ephemeral. I was at all those summits, and I remember maybe a tenth of what I saw — and I saw less than half of what was on the program. I’m known for being down on academia a lot of the time, but they do have one thing right: you have to publish in order to create a body of knowledge.
I think I’m pretty good at what I do. But you guys are going to have to take my word for it. Because you don’t know my work. You only know what I say about my work.
I think I’m pretty good at what I do. I hope I’m getting better. I hope that my best work is still ahead of me. But I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how I would know. I’ve been coming to the Summit for ten years, and I’ve been doing this work, in some form or another, for close to 15. And as I’ve watched my professional peers settle down, get married, start families, become managers, I’ve found myself wondering about creative peaks.
In the field of mathematics, they say that if you haven’t made a significant contribution by the age of 30, you never will. It’s a young person’s game. 33 is young to be publishing your first novel, but it’s old to be recording your first album.
When do information architects hit their creative peaks? Let’s assume that I’m at about the median age for this group. Just assume most of you are my age, and there are about as many older than me as younger than me.
Now, if I’m at about the median age for an information architect now, when will that change? Will the median age keep going up, as this group of people ages? Presumably, at some point I’ll be one of the oldest guys in the room.
Alternately, what if information architecture is something that you don’t really get good at until you’ve been doing it for 20 years? Then we really have something to look forward to, don’t we?
Here’s another thing I thought we’d be hearing more about by the time of the tenth IA Summit:
You guys heard of this thing called neuromarketing? Man, this stuff is cool. They take people, they hook them up to MRIs — you know, brainwave scanners — and then they show them TV commercials. And they look at what parts of their brains light up when they watch these TV commercials. Then they do a little bit of A/B testing, and they can figure out how to craft a TV commercial that will elicit things like a feeling of safety. Or trust. Or desire.
So yeah, my first reaction when I saw this stuff was: Wow, I gotta get my hands on some of that! We’ve only just scratched the surface of what we can do with eyetracking and the marketers have already moved on to braintracking! But then my second reaction was: Wait a minute. What are we talking about here? A process designed to elicit specific patterns of neural activity in users? Back in the 50s, they called that “mind control”!
Now in a lot of ways, we’re already in the mind control business. Information architecture and interaction design both seek to reward and reinforce certain patterns of thought and behavior. (Just ask anybody who’s tried to wrestle any 37signals app into functioning the way they want to work, instead of the way Jason Fried thinks they ought to be working.)
So there’s always been an ethical dimension to our work. But who’s talking about this stuff? Who’s taking it seriously?
I don’t hear anybody talking about these things. Instead, what everybody wants to talk about is power, authority, respect. “Where’s our seat at the table?” Well, you know, there are people who make the decisions you want to be making. They’re called product managers. You want that authority? Go get that job. Don’t ask them to give that authority to you.
“When are we going to get the respect we deserve?” I’ll tell you how it’s going to happen. Somebody in this room, right now, at some point in the future is going to be the CEO of some company other than a design firm. They’ll develop all of those right political and managerial skills to rise to that level of power. And they will institute a culture in their organization that respects user experience. And then they’re just going to start kicking their competitors’ asses. And then gradually it will happen in industry after industry after industry. That’s how it will happen. But it will take time.
I had the thought at one of these summits a few years ago that we would know we had really arrived as a profession when there were people who wanted to sell us stuff. Because, you see, I grew up in the United States, where you don’t exist unless you are a target market.
And here at this event this year we have companies like TechSmith and Axure and Access Innovations and Optimal Workshop. And we thank them for their support. But where’s Microsoft? Where’s Adobe? Where’s Omni?
We aren’t a target market for any but the smallest companies. The big ones still don’t understand who we are. We’re still a small community, struggling to define itself.
In 2002, in the wake of the last bubble burst, I wrote an essay called “ia/recon”. In that essay, I tried to chart what I saw as a way forward for the field out of the endless debate over definitions. In the essay, I drew a distinction between the discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect, and I argued that one need not be defined by the other.
Seven years later, I can see that I was wrong. The discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect will always be defined in conjunction with one another. As long as you have information architects, what they do will always be information architecture. Seems pretty obvious, right? Only took me seven years to figure out.
But that’s okay, because what is clear to me now is that there is no such thing as an information architect.
Information architecture does not exist as a profession. As an area of interest and inquiry? Sure. As your favorite part of your job? Absolutely. But it’s not a profession.
Now, you IxDA folks should hold off for a moment before Twittering your victory speeches — because there’s no such thing as an interaction designer either. Not as a profession. Anyone who claims to specialize in one or the other is a fool or a liar. The fools are fooling themselves into thinking that one aspect of their work is somehow paramount. And the liars seek to align themselves with a tribe that will convey upon them status and power.
There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.
I’d like to talk about each of these three words, in reverse order, starting with “design”. Now, this is a word that I have personally had a long and difficult history with. I didn’t like this word being applied to our work for many years. I thought it placed us in a tradition — graphic design, industrial design, interface design — where our work did not belong. I also saw the dogmatism endemic to design education as poisonous and destructive to a field as young as ours. I still find the tendency of “designers” to view all human creative endeavor through the narrow lens of their own training and experience to be contemptible and appallingly short-sighted.
But I’m ready to give up fighting against this word, if only because it’s easily understood by those outside our field. And anything that enables us to be more easily understood is something we desperately need.
Now, let’s talk about that word “experience”. A lot of people have trouble with this word, especially paired with the word “design”. “You can’t call it experience design!” they say. “How can you possibly control someone else’s experience?” they demand.
Well, wait a minute — who said anything about control? Treating design as synonymous with control, and the designer as the all-powerful controller, says something more about the way these designers think of themselves and their relationship to their work than it does about the notion of experience design.
“Experience is too ephemeral,” they say, “too insubstantial to be designed.” You mean insubstantial the way music is insubstantial? Or a dance routine? Or a football play? Yet all of these things are designed.
The entire hypothesis of experience design (and it is a hypothesis at this point) is that the ephemeral and insubstantial can be designed. And that there is a kind of design that can be practiced independent of medium and across media.
Now, this part makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they’re committed to the design tradition of a particular medium. So they dismiss experience design as simply best practices. “What you call experience design,” they say, “is really nothing more than good industrial design.” Or good graphic design. Or good interface design.
This “mediumism” resists the idea that design can be practiced in a medium-independent or cross-media way. Because that implies that there may be something these mediumist design traditions have been missing all along.
If our work simply recapitulates what has been best practice in all these fields all along, why are the experiences they deliver so astonishingly bad? And let’s face it, they are really bad.
One big reason for it has to do with this last word, one which I think has been unfairly maligned: the word “user”. You guys know the joke, right? There are only two industries in the world that refer to their customers as users. One is the technology business and the other is drug dealers. Ha ha, get it? Our work is just as dehumanizing as selling people deadly, addictive chemicals that will destroy their lives and eventually kill them! Get it? It’s funny because it’s true.
No, it’s not. I’m here to reclaim “user”. Because “user” connotes use, and use matters! We don’t make things for those most passive of entities, consumers. We don’t even make things for audiences, which at least connotes some level of appreciation. The things we make get used! They become a part of people’s lives! That’s important work. It touches people in ways most of them could never even identify. But it’s real.
Okay, time for another show of hands: who here has “information architect” or “information architecture” in your title, on your business card? Raise your hand. [audience raises hands] Almost as many as we had ASIST members.
Okay, now let me see those hands again. Keep your hand up if there is also someone in your organization with “interaction design” or “interaction designer” in the title.
[hands go down]
Almost every hand went down. I see one hand, two hands. Three, four… five.
This is what the interaction design community recognizes — and what the leadership of the IxDA recognizes in particular — that the IA community does not.
In the marketplace, this is a zero-sum game. Every job req created for an “interaction designer” is one less job req for an “information architect” and vice versa. And the more “interaction designers” there are, the more status and authority and influence and power accrues to the IxDA and its leadership.
They get this, and you can see it play out in everything they do, including refusing offers of support and cooperation from groups they see as competitors, and throwing temper tantrums about how other groups schedule their conferences. Meanwhile, the IAs are so busy declaring peace that they don’t even realize that they’ve already lost the war.
This territorialism cannot go on, and I hope the IxDA leadership sees an opportunity here for positive change. These organizations should be sponsoring each other’s events, reaching out to each other’s membership, working together to raise the tide for everyone.
There is no us and them. We are not information architects. We are not interaction designers. We are user experience designers. This is the identity we must embrace. Any other will only hold back the progress of the field by marginalizing an important dimension of our work and misleading those outside our field about what is most important and valuable about what we do. Because it’s not information, and it’s not interaction.
We’re in the experience business. User experience. We create things that people use.
To use something is to engage with it. And engagement is what it’s all about.
Our work exists to be engaged with. In some sense, if no one engages with our work it doesn’t exist.
It reminds me of an artist named J.S.G. Boggs. He hand-draws these meticulously detailed near-replicas of U.S. currency. It’s gotten him in trouble with the Secret Service a couple of times. They’re near-replicas — they’re not exact, they’re obviously fake. They’re fascinating and they’re delightful, in and of themselves, as objects.
But here’s the catch: For Boggs, the work isn’t complete until he gets someone to accept the object as currency. The transaction is the artwork, not the object that changes hands. As he sees it, his work is not about creating things that look like currency it’s about using art as currency. It’s the use — the human engagement — that matters.
Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before. It can be practiced in any medium, and across media.
Show of hands: Who here is involved in creating digital experiences? [audience raises hands] Okay, hands down. Now: who’s involved in creating non-digital experiences? [audience raises hands] More hands than I thought.
Now, do we really believe that this is the boundary of our profession? And if we don’t, why are there so many talks about websites at conferences like this one?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the web. I hope to be working with the web in 10 years, in 20 years. But the web is just a canvas. Or perhaps a better metaphor is clay — raw material that we shape into experiences for people.
But there are lots of materials — media — we can use to shape experiences. Saying user experience design is about digital media is rather like saying that sculpture is about the properties of clay.
That’s not to say that an individual sculptor can’t dedicate themselves to really mastering clay. They can, and they do — just like many of you will always be really great at creating user experiences for the web.
But that does not define the boundary of user experience design. Where it really gets interesting is when you start looking at experiences that involve multiple media, multiple channels. Because there’s a whole lot more to orchestrating a multi-channel experience than simply making sure that the carpet matches the drapes.
We’ve always said we were in the multimedia business. Let’s put some weight behind that. Expanding our horizons in this way does not dilute our influence. It strengthens it.
So if we’re all user experience designers, and there are no more information architects, but there is still such a thing as information architecture, what does it look like?
Well, let’s take a closer look at engagement, and think about the ways we can engage people. What are the varieties of human engagement?
We can engage people’s senses. We can stimulate them through visuals, through sound, through touch and smell and taste. This is the domain of the traditional creative arts: painting, music, fashion, cooking.
We can engage their minds, get them thinking, reasoning, analyzing, synthesizing. This is where fields like scholarship and rhetoric have something to teach us.
We can engage their hearts, provoke them in feelings of joy and sadness and wonder and rage. (I’ve seen a lot of rage.) The folks who know about this stuff are the storytellers, the filmmakers, and yes, even the marketers.
And we can engage their bodies. We can compel them to act. This is the closest to what we’ve traditionally done studying and trying to influence human behavior.
And that’s really about it. Or at least, that’s all that I’ve been able to think of: Perception, engaging the senses. Cognition, engaging the mind. Emotion, engaging the heart. And action, engaging the body.
Mapping out the interrelationships between these turns out to be a surprisingly deep problem. Every part influences every other part in unexpected ways. In particular, thinking and feeling are so tangled up together that we practically need a new word for it: “thinkfeel”.
There are a few other factors, sort of orthogonal to these, that influence experience:
There are our capabilities: the properties of our bodies, the acuity of our senses, the sharpness and flexibility of our minds, the size of our hearts. Our capabilities determine what we can do.
Then there are our constraints, which define what we can’t do. The limits on our abilities, whether permanent — someone who’s having a hard time reading because they have dyslexia — or temporary — someone who’s having a hard time reading because they’ve had five bourbons.
Finally, we have context. And I have to admit that I’m cheating a bit on this one because I’m packing a lot of different factors up into this one category. There’s the context of the moment: babies crying, dogs barking, phones ringing. (Calgon, take me away!) Then there’s personal context: the history, associations, beliefs, personality traits of that individual. And there’s the broad context: social, cultural, economic, technological.
But these three — capabilities, constraints, and context — are really just cofactors, shaping and influencing experience in those big four categories: perception, cognition, emotion, and action.
Our role, as user experience designers, is to synthesize and orchestrate elements in all of these areas to create a holistic, cohesive, engaging experience.
So how do we create user experiences that engage across all of these areas? Where can we look to for expertise? Where’s the insight? Where are the areas for further inquiry?
Perception is already pretty well covered. We’ve got visual designers and, sometimes, animators. In some cases we’ve got sound designers. We’ve got industrial designers, working on the tactile aspects of the products we create.
Action, again, is pretty much what we were doing already. I defined action as engagement of the body, which may sound strange to many of you when I say that we’ve really been doing this all along. But if you think about our work, when we talk about behavior, we are always talking about some physical manifestation of a user’s intention — even when that manifestation is as small as a click. (And the interaction designers claim to own behavior anyway so I say let them have it.)
Because the real action is in these last two areas, cognition and emotion. This, to my mind, is the manifest destiny for information architecture. We may not have fully recognized it before because the phrase “information architecture” puts the emphasis on the wrong thing.
It’s never been about information. It’s always been about people: how they relate to that information, how that information makes them think, how it makes them feel, and how the structure of that information influences both things. This is huge, unexplored territory.
We must acknowledge that as user experience designers we have a broader place in the world than simply delivering value to businesses. We must embrace our role as a cultural force.
Here’s Michael Wesch quoting Marshall McLuhan again: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Think about that for a second. “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” When McLuhan said “we”, and when he said “us”, he was talking about the entire human race. But not everybody’s a shaper, right? The shapers are the people in this room, the people in this field. We shape those tools and then, the experiences that those tools create shape humanity itself. Think about the responsibility that entails.
I believe that when we embrace that role as a cultural force, and we embrace that responsibility, this work — user experience design — will take its place among the most fundamental and important human crafts, alongside engineering and architecture and all kinds of creative expression and creative problem solving disciplines.
At last year’s five-minute madness, I said that the experts who give talks at events like this one were making it up as they went along. But, I said, that’s okay, because we all are.
I take that back. We aren’t making it up as we go along. This is not a process of invention. This is a process of discovery.
What we are uncovering about people, about tools and their use, about experiences — it’s always been there. We just didn’t know how to see it.
This discovery phase is far from over. Ten years isn’t nearly enough time. There’s more that we can’t see than is apparent to us right now.
For my part, and for you as well, I hope there’s always more for us to discover together.
Thank you all very much.
Video by Chris Pallé and “The UX Workshop”:http://theuxworkshop.tv/ photo by “Jorge Arango”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/jarango/3382137521/
Thanks to Chris and Jorge.
These podcasts are sponsored by:
The “American Society of Information Science & Technology”:http://asist.org/: Since 1937, ASIS&T has been THE society for information professionals leading the search for new and better theories, techniques, and technologies to improve access to information.
The “IA Summit”:http://www.iasummit.org: the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals.
The theme of the event this year, Expanding Our Horizons, inspired peers and industry experts to come together to speak about a wide range of topics. This included information as wide ranging as practical techniques & tools to evolving practices to create better user experiences.
“Boxes & Arrows”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com: Since 2001, Boxes & Arrows has been a peer-written journal promoting contributors who want to provoke thinking, push limits, and teach a few things along the way.
Contribute as an editor or author, and get your ideas out there. “boxesandarrows.com/about/participate”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/about/participate
No current software supports the full process of collaboration.
That’s a bold claim, and I hope that someone can prove me wrong.
This article is more of a “Working Towards …” position paper than the final word; written in the hope that the ensuing discussion will either bring to light some software of which I’m not aware, or motivate the right people to develop what’s needed.
There is plenty of hype about “Collaboration 2.0” at the moment, but the bugle is being blown too loudly, too soon. Take, for instance, the Enterprise Collaboration Panel at last year’s Office 2.0 Conference. Most of the discussion was really about communication rather than collaboration, with only a hint that beyond forming a social network (“putting the water cooler inside the computer”) there was still a lack of software that actually helped groups of people get the work done. What’s missing from the discussion is any formulation of what the process of collaboration entails; there’s no model from which collaborative applications could arise. If we can figure out a model then we in the UX community should be able to make a significant contribution to it.
I want to start this discussion by proposing a model for collaboration1 that links the various elements of collaboration, comment on the so-called “collaboration software” currently available, and make some tentative suggestions about IA and UX requirements for a real collaboration platform.
A proposed model
Collaboration is a co-ordinated sequence of actions performed by members of a team in order to achieve a shared goal.
The main concepts in this definition are:
Collaboration is action-oriented. People must do something to collaborate. They may exchange ideas, arrange an event, write a report, lay bricks, or design some software. To collaborate is to act together and it is the combined set of actions that constitutes collaboration.
Collaboration is goal-oriented. The reason for working together is to achieve something. There is some purpose behind the actions: to create a web site, to build an office block, to support each other through grief, or some other human goal. The collaborators may have varying motivations, but the collaboration per se focuses on a goal that is shared.
Collaboration involves a team. No-one can collaborate alone. Collaboration requires a group of people working together. The team may be any size, may be geographically co-located or dispersed, membership may be voluntary or imposed, but there is at least some essence of being part of the team.
Collaboration is co-ordinated. That is, the team is working together in some sense. The co-ordination may follow some formal methodology, but can equally well be implicit and informal. There needs to be some sense at least that there are a number of things to be done, some sequences of actions, some allocation of tasks within the group, and some way to combine the contributions of different team members.
Components of collaboration
Any collaboration process involves interactions between six elements, as shown in the following diagram:
Figure 1. The basic components of collaboration
The Artifacts are the tangible objects relating to the collaboration. They include the outcomes of the process – the office block that progressively gets built, the web site that finally gets commissioned – as well as a variety of objects that were used along the way to promote, direct and record collaboration – such as design documents, project schedules, and meeting agendas.
The Team element includes the collaborators and the interactions between them: Team membership and authorization, inter-personal dynamics, personal identity, decision making processes, and communication.
The Tasks element includes the list of things to be done in order to reach the goal, along with all the processes necessary to manage that list. How do tasks get formulated? How is their status recorded and tracked over time? How is the list prioritized and scheduled? How are tasks assigned to team members and how are personal ‘To Do’ lists presented?
Most collaboration is extended across time, and consequently requires some degree of time-management: setting deadlines, milestones and task completion dates; scheduling team meetings; and keeping an historical record of events.
Team members perform Actions based on the Tasks assigned to them. The Actions might just involve searching or viewing the Artifacts, but more typically mean modifying the Artifacts in some way. There might also be some meta-Actions such as maintaining the Artifact repository, keeping a log of Actions and commenting on the Artifacts.
Resources enable the Team members to perform the Actions. They include physical equipment, money, external advice, and all manner of software (project management, Wiki, spreadsheet, and content management systems, among others).
The current state of collaborative software
There are three primary ways in which humans interact: conversations, transactions, and collaborations. There is plenty of software that enables conversation–email, VOIP, chat, IM, forums–and plenty of software for transactions–eBay, PayPal, internet banking, shopping carts. But what is available for collaboration?
There are many software applications that seek to enable collaboration2. But let’s see what happens when they are evaluated under these three categories:
The extent to which the software provides the required functional components (i.e. the boxes in Figure 1)
The extent to which the software supports the interaction between those components (i.e. the lines in Figure 1)
The usual criteria that apply to all software , such as ease of interaction, security, integration with other applications, and so on.
It is true that there are software packages for most of the individual components of collaboration:
Artifacts: we have software for maintaining and accessing a repository of digital Artifacts (e.g. any number of CMS applications–well-established ones like Documentum or Stellent, more recent one’s like Joomla! or any of the 925 others listed at The CMS Matrix), and we can easily construct databases for tracking the status of non-digital Artifacts.
Team: software for maintaining team membership, facilitating group-based decision support, and managing remote meetings (e.g. WebEx) and video conferencing. There is even some possibility that virtual worlds like Second Life may provide an effective environment for team interaction. In Growing Pains: Can Web 2.0 Evolve Into An Enterprise Technology?, Andy Dornan quotes a business manager as saying that “Second Life allows more user engagement than traditional video or phone conferencing.” I know of one company whose preliminary experiments with Second Life found that there was a more relaxed and open interaction via avatars than when a team interacted face-to-face.
Tasks: software for maintaining task lists (e.g. Jira, ScrumWorks); task dependencies and scheduling, Gantt Charts (Microsoft Project, @task); brainstorming; workflow and process modeling; and others.
Resources and Actions: Many software applications act as Resources for implementing diverse Actions. For instance, Wikis enable editing of shared documents, and there are any number of calculators, electronic dictionaries, encyclopedias, search engines, web design tools – software that team members might use as they do their work.
These ‘point’ solutions may address their targeted functions effectively and even showcase the core ideals of Web 2.0 – user-generated content and taxonomies, broad-based participation, software-as-a-service (SaaS), and rich user-interfaces within a web browser. But they can’t just be lumped together and called “Collaboration” (with or without the 2.0 suffix). If you buy into the definition and model described above, it should be clear that true collaboration software must go beyond a set of disconnected point solutions and reach for the broader goal of enabling the whole collaboration process.
A key shortcoming of current so-called “collaborative software” is that there is no compelling metaphor or unifying vocabulary. We have many of the necessary pieces, but they do not interact at either the backend or user interface levels.
CSCW and CSC both promised such systems, but where are the practical results? While these research areas from previous decades generated many novel and hopeful ideas, there seems to have been an overly academic orientation rather than much focus on software design. Although the theory made useful distinctions, such as the categorization of collaboration by time and space, the software that resulted from these efforts dealt more with communication and co-ordination than with real collaboration.
Google offers an assortment of products that promote collaboration: Google Calendar, Google Apps, and more are promised. I was hoping that their acquisition of JotSpot in 2006 might result in a broader Wiki-based collaboration platform that unified those other offerings. But to date JotSpot has been silent. At this stage, Google’s offering is still an “assortment” rather than a clearly-conceived package.
The Zoho suite encapsulates virtually all the point-solutions mentioned above. It includes the standard office tools (word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, email), remote conferencing, chat, meeting organizer, calendar, project management and a Wiki. All of that and more is delivered via a SaaS model through your web browser. Zoho is way ahead of any competition because of its unified user interface. However, there are still important aspects lacking in Zoho: not primarily additional modules but some key IA and UX characteristics that I outline below.
Perhaps the closest we have today is from Microsoft. Combine SharePoint, Outlook and the Office suite and this provides remarkably effective functionality for team management, scheduling meetings, communication and shared workspaces. Our organization makes heavy use of this combination, and it pushes teamwork and information sharing a long way ahead of where we once were. On the down-side, the Task management in that environment is quite simplistic, with little support for maintaining a complex task list, or prioritization, or comprehensive status reports. The Wiki facility shipped with SharePoint is very primitive3. Microsoft has implemented a “Collaboration 1.0” approach rather than “Collaboration 2.0”, by which I mean it requires a large degree of centralized control rather than drawing on the power of social networking. Of course, the content of email, announcements, uploaded documents, and so on is completely open to freedom of expression, but the constrained environment and heavy IT infrastructure make the system as a whole feels complex and unwieldy.
Perhaps something specific needs to be said about one type of so-called collaborative software – the type that enables multi-user editing of electronic documents. Most of these applications are primarily interested in version control: they maintain a repository of documents and control access to that repository. Authorized people can view documents and a subset of those can edit the documents. The software provides some process for giving each editor a copy of the document and when the changes have been made, the software merges the changes back into the master copy, while keeping some form of historical change log. Examples are clearspace and the various text-based code-management tools such as Subversion.
While revision control has an important role, it is a meager offering in terms of the extent of collaboration that it enables. In most cases, such applications assume that individuals work independently of each other. One user edits this part of the document and, as a quite separate task, another user may edit another part of the same document. Two people editing the same part of the document is treated as a problem, and typically the last person to submit changes trumps any previous changes.
A more significant level of collaboration requires the assumption that multiple people will be working together to edit the document simultaneously. That requires a single shared document rather than separate copies of a master document for each editor. See Wikipedia article for a list of such real-time collaborative editors.
XMPP (the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) has extensions for both multi-user text editing and multi-user whiteboarding, so there is at least discussions about how such interaction can be standardized. But tools that use that protocol are few and far between.
The Challenge for IA and UX
There are many human and business activities mediated by computer systems where IA and UX practitioners have provided design guidance to make the interaction more effective. Given that collaboration is fundamentally about interacting effective to jointly achieve some goal, IA and UX can play an even more substantial role than usual.
So, what principles would you apply to collaboration software? Here are my suggestions:
1. Build the user interface around a consistent, unifying metaphor.
The metaphor should be goal-oriented. That is, a stated goal should take center-stage, with the Team, Tasks, Calendar, Resources, and Artifacts being other players in the drama.
The user interface needs to enable and encourage interactions between collaborators. Perhaps the metaphor of a sport team would be effective.
A “portal”/dashboard pattern allows simple movement between team management, task list, calendar, documentation management and the like. That approach can collate the answers to core concerns like: What collaboration projects am I part of? What’s the current status of each? What’s on my To Do list?
2. Build an open, extensible, modular framework: a collaboration platform rather than a single application.
The scope of collaboration is too extensive to expect that a single vendor will be able to provide all the pieces. It is important to allow modules to be gathered from multiple sources and plugged into a shared framework.
For instance, Jira might be the first choice for the maintaining the Task list, but the framework should allow that to be substituted with alternatives. Similarly, in a basic system there may be a limited reporting feature (e.g. to view the change history for the Artifact), but it should be possible to plug in a more substantial reporting application later on.
Most importantly, it will be important to provide a standard API to the Artifact repository, so that any number of applications can view, add and modify Artifacts.
3. Include at least the following functions “out of the box:”
Team management: functions to define and authorize team members, and for individuals to update their personal profiles
Task management: functions to add and prioritize tasks, allocate responsibilities to team members, and maintain current status
Calendar management: all team members can add events to a single shared calendar
Communication: integration with email, IM, and other technologies
Meetings: ability to schedule a meeting and invite specific team members, publish an agenda, record notes and decisions from the meeting.
4. The platform itself should maintain a collaboration history rather than leave that function to the plug-in components. All meetings, decisions, changes to Artifacts, Task status changes and other events are recorded in that history. The history should be displayed as a journal along a time-line as well as being exposed as a life-stream via RSS/Atom.
5. Connect to other enterprise applications and data stores. A collaboration application will gain significant value if it can interact with existing databases, content management systems, security mechanisms, and if it can exchange data with other applications via some standard like Web Services.
6. Implement all this as a Rich Internet Application. The complexity of interactions between team members who are potentially geographically scattered indicates the platform needs to be web-based. The complexity of interactions between users and the system indicates that the user interface needs to be very dynamic, with near-real-time synchronization between all concurrent users and a shared Artifact repository.
Maybe all I’ve done here is scratch an itch. But I hope that the itch is contagious.
Collaboration is an essential part of human endeavor and information technology is at a stage where it should be able to add value to collaboration in more ways that just connecting people in a social network. We have many web-based applications that address parts of the process, but who’s going to create the framework to bring it all together?
3 Lawrence Liu comments that the SharePoint Wiki is not intended to be best-of-breed, just something that “is sufficient for a very large percentage of our customer base”. Even that is wishful thinking, but fortunately, the guys at Atlassian have made a SharePoint Connector for Confluence that can easily replace the default SharePoint Wiki.
Gone, thankfully, are the days when the user experience and the user interface were an afterthought in the website design process, to be added on when programming was nearing completion. As our profession has increasingly gained importance, it also become increasingly specialized: information design, user experience design, interaction design, user research, persona development, ethnographic user research, usability testing—the list goes on and on. Increased specialization, however, doesn’t always translate to increased user satisfaction.
My company conducted a best practice study to examine the development practices of in-house teams designing web applications—across multiple industries, in companies large and small. Some teams were large and highly specialized, while others were small and required a single team member to perform multiple roles. We identified and validated best practices by measuring user satisfaction levels for the applications each team had designed; the higher the user satisfaction scores for the application, the more value we attributed to the practices of the team that designed it.
We did not find any correlation with user satisfaction and those teams with the most specialized team members, one way or the other: some teams with the most specialization did well, and some teams did poorly. What we did consistently observe among teams that had high user satisfaction scores, was one characteristic that stood out above all the others—what we began to call shared, holistic understanding. Those teams that achieved the highest degree of shared, holistic understanding consistently designed the best web applications. The more each team member understood the business goals, the user needs, and the capabilities and limitations of the IT environment—a holistic view—the more successful the project. In contrast, the more each team member was “siloed” into knowing just their piece of the whole, the less successful the project.
All of the members of the best teams could tell us, with relative ease, the top five business goals of their application, the top five user types the application was to serve, and the top five platform capabilities and limitations they had to work within. And, when questioned more deeply, each team member revealed an appreciation and understanding of the challenges and goals of their teammates almost as well as their own.
The members of the teams that performed less well not only tended not to understand the application as a whole, they saw no need to understand it as a whole: programmers did not care to know about users, user researchers did not care to know about programming limitations, and stakeholders were uninvolved and were considered “clueless” by the rest of the development team. These are blunt assessments of unfortunate team member attitudes, but we were surprised how often we found them to be present.
We also observed that the best teams fell into similar organizational patterns—even though there was a blizzard of differing titles—in order to explore and understand the information derived from business, users and IT. We summarized the organization pattern in the diagram below. We chose generic/descriptive titles to simplify the picture of what we observed. In many cases there were several people composing a small team such as the “UI Developer(s)” or the “User Representative(s)” often with differing titles. Also fairly common were very small teams where the same person performed multiple roles.
Fig. 1 — Teams tend to organize in similar patterns in response to the information domains they need to explore and understand
Even this simplified view of the development team reveals the inherent complexity of the development process. The best team leaders managed to not only encourage and manage the flow of good information from each information domain, but they also facilitated thorough communication of quality information across all the team members regardless of their domain. Here’s how they did it.
Five Key Ways to Promote Shared, Holistic Understanding
1. All team members—all—conduct at least some user research
Jared Spool once wrote that having someone conduct user research for you is like having someone take a vacation for you—it doesn’t have the desired effect! On the best teams, everyone, from programmers to stakeholders, participate to some degree in user research. A specialist on the team often organizes and schedules the process, provides scenario scripts or other aids to the process, but everyone on the team participates in the research process and thus has direct contact with actual users. There is no substitute for direct contact with users. Interviewing living breathing users, ideally in their own home or work place, makes a deeper impression than any amount of documentation can duplicate.
2. Team members participate in work and task flow workshops
Designing applications to support the preferred work and task flow of the users—providing the right information, in the right features, at the right time—is one of the hallmarks of applications that get high user satisfaction scores. The best teams devote enough whiteboard-style collaborative workshop time to explore work and task flow (including in the sessions actual users when possible), until all team members truly understand all the steps, loops and potential failure paths of their users.
3. Team members share and discuss information as a team
A simple practice, but one which is often overlooked, is taking the time to share and discuss findings and decisions with the entire team. Too often teams communicate information of significant importance to the project through documentation alone or through hurried summaries. Even if it is not possible for the team to participate in all user research or in mapping out all work and task flow on a whiteboard together, at a minimum, the team should go through the results of these processes in sufficient detail and with sufficient time to discuss and understand what has been learned.
Direct participation is the most effective way to learn and understand. Full and relaxed discussion with team members is the second best. Reading documentation only is the least effective way for team members to retain and understand project information.
4. Team members prioritize information as a team
Not only is it important that all team members be familiar with information from all three domains (business goals, user needs, and IT capabilities), but it is especially significant that they understand the relative importance of the information—its priority.
My company developed what we call a “Features and Activity Matrix”, based on our own experience designing applications, and from the practices we observed in our study. The features and activity matrix accomplishes two things:
The features and activities matrix allows team members to prioritize the proposed features and activities from the perspective of their own domain through a process of numeric ranking. Business ranks according to the importance to the business, IT ranks according to “doability” (measuring budget, resources and schedule against each proposed feature and activity), and the user representatives rank according to their assessment of what will make users most satisfied.
The numeric ranking for each feature or activity, from each domain, is then averaged to arrive at a consensus prioritization of every feature and activity proposed for the application. If, as is usually the case, the team is already aware that they cannot do everything that has been requested or proposed, this is a very effective way to determine which features and activities are not going to make the cut and which ones have the highest importance.
Fig.2 — Features and Activities Matrix. Note that we used a ranking scale of 1-5, 5 being the most important.
5. Team members design together in collaborative workshops
Once information from all three domains is gathered, analyzed, shared and prioritized, the remaining—and most powerful—practice to promote a shared, holistic understanding is to conduct wireframe-level, whiteboard-style, collaborative design sessions. Your session participants should include a solid representation of users, business and IT but not exceed roughly 12 people. In these workshops teams can work out together the basic layout, features and activities for most of the core screens needed for a project. These sessions can, and should, require multiple days. We have found that between 10 and 20 core screens can be considered, discussed, iterated and designed in 4-5 days of workshops.
Make sure everyone is fully engaged: business cannot be half committed, and IT cannot say that they will determine later if the screen can be built. All team members should be prepared to make real-time decisions in the collaborative design session. Inevitably there will be a few things that simply cannot be decided during the session, but the greater the shared, holistic understanding that already exists, the fewer things that will require processing and final decisions outside the session.
A well prepared collaborative design session both promotes and leverages the team’s shared, holistic understanding of the project. Even though they are time consuming, collaborative workshops eventually save time because the team ends up needing less iterations to refine and finish the design. Collaborative workshops also insure higher quality; there are fewer missteps and errors down the line because of the shared understanding of the design. Finally, collaborative workshops create great buy-in from business and IT. It is far less likely that some—or all—of the project will undergo unexpected or last minute changes if the goals and priority of features is clearly established during the design process.
Whatever the size and structure of your team, and no matter how many or how few specialists it has, your outcomes will be better if everyone shares a holistic understanding of the work at hand. Taking the extra time as a team to develop a shared holistic understanding pays off in greater efficiency in the long run—and most importantly—in greater user satisfaction and overall success!