Alignment Diagrams

Written by: Jim Kalbach

Alignment diagramsDid you ever get bounced around between departments when interacting with a company or service? This happened to me recently with my credit card: the card issuer and the bank backing it seemed to disagree who was responsible for my problem. Each blamed the other. I got caught in the middle.

My communication with them also crossed multiple channels. For some things I used their website, for others I had to call. There were emails, regular mail and even a fax involved as well. None of it seemed coordinated. Apparently it was my job to piece it together. Bad experience.

Why does this happen? All too often companies are focused on their own processes, wrapped up in a type of organizational navel gazing. They simply don’t know what customers actually go through.

What’s more, logical solutions can cross departmental lines. Ideal solutions may require crossing those boundaries. An organization’s rigid decision making makes that difficult.

Here’s where I believe IAs and UX designers can use our skills to make a difference. We have the ability to understand and to map out both business processes and the user experience. Visual representations can provide new insight into solutions that appeal to a range of stakeholders. Alignment diagrams are a key tool to do this.

Mapping The Experience

Alignment diagrams reveal the touchpoints between a customer and a business. Illustrating these helps a company shift its inward-focusing perspectives outward. Alignment diagrams make the value creation chain visible.

The phrase “alignment diagrams” describes a class of documents that reveal the touchpoints between a customer and a business. These touchpoints are organized and visually aligned in a single graphical overview. Illustrating these touchpoints helps a company shift its inherently inward-focusing perspectives outward. Alignment diagrams make the value creation chain visible from both sides of the fence.

Alignment diagrams are not new. In fact, you’ve already used them. Thus my definition of alignment diagrams does not introduce a new technique but rather recognizes how existing techniques can be seen in a new, constructive way.

Alignment diagrams have two major parts. On the one side, they illustrate various aspects of user behavior—actions, thoughts, and feelings, among other aspects of their experience. On the other side, alignment diagrams reflect a company’s offerings and business process in some way. The areas where the two halves meet gives rise to touchpoints, or the interactions between customers and an organization.

Below are examples of two diagrams that illustrate the alignment principle.

Example 1: Service Blueprint

The first example is a service blueprint created by Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path (Figure 1.). This shows the chronological flow of steps for attending a live event, in this case a panel on service design. (See the original details of the event from 2009 [1]).

The top two rows show the phases and physical devices a participant might use. We can call this the “front stage.” The bottom three rows show the activities of the organizer. These are “backstage” activities. These two parts are separated by the “line of interaction,” or touchpoints between participants and organizer of the event.
Service map

Figure 1: An example of a simple service blueprint by Brand Schauer, Adaptive Path

 

Example 2: Mental Model Diagram

The next example of an alignment diagram is a mental model. Indi Young developed this technique and detailed it in her book Mental Models (Rosenfeld Media, 2008) [2].

Figure 2 is a slightly simplified version of a mental model diagram, but it shows the alignment principle well. This example shows a mental model for activities related to “getting up in the morning.” The top half hierarchically arranges user actions, thoughts and feelings gleaned from primary research. These are clustered together into broader “goal spaces” (e.g., “Get Dressed”).

Below the center horizontal line are products and services that support people in these activities. With this alignment, providers of goods and services can see where they address user needs and where there are gaps.
Mental model

Figure 2: An example of a mental model diagram by Indi Young, reflecting the alignment principle.

 

There are other visual styles and approaches to alignment diagrams beyond the above figures. (See the list of Alignment Diagram resources at the end of this article.) Customer journey maps and workflow diagrams are also examples. So there is no single approach to the alignment technique. Instead, you choose the form, the information included, and the way you present them to shape your overall message. It depends on your situation. The important thing to remember is that an alignment diagram shows user behavior aligned to business activity to reveal touchpoints.

Locating Value

An analysis of the touchpoints between users and the business lets us see value creation from both sides of the equation at the same time. This is at the core of the alignment technique.

Businesses ultimately need to earn money. But to do so they also have to provide some value to customers. An analysis of the touchpoints between users and the business lets us see value creation from both sides of the equation at the same time. This is at the core of the alignment technique.

In a previous Boxes and Arrows article entitled “Searching for the Center of Design,” Jess McMullin proposes what he calls “value-centered design.” [3] Instead of focusing solely on the business or solely on users, Jess advocates focusing on how value is created for both. “Value-centered design” is the approach he prefers. He writes:

The basic premise of value-centered design is that shared value is the center of design. This value comes from the intersection of: business goals and context, individual goals and context, and the offering…and delivery.

Value-centered design starts a story about an ideal interaction between an individual and an organization and the benefits each realizes from that interaction.

Jess McMullin, “Searching for the center of design”, Boxes and Arrows, 2003.

Alignment diagrams let us tell the story of value creation.

Once completed, alignment diagrams serve as diagnostic tools. With them we can spot and prioritize areas for improvement. They also point to opportunities for innovation and growth. Ultimately, alignment diagrams let designers capture and reflect how value is created in a holistic way. When communicated to decision makers, this can have real business impact by changing the focus from how products are made to the experience customers have.

Who Creates Alignment Diagrams?

Modern business challenges are wicked problems. Organizations unknowingly pass this complexity on to customers, resulting in negative user experiences. Alignment diagrams can reduce complexity for both customers and for organizations. They are an antidote to the challenges our business partners face.

The good news is you probably already have the skills needed to create alignment diagrams. These include:

1. Conducting Research

Alignment diagrams are not made up. They are based on real data. Face-to-face interviews and observation work best. This includes contacting people on the business side: stakeholder research is part of the alignment technique.

2. Synthesizing Findings

Designers are good at describing abstract concepts, such as an intended experience. We’re able to empathize with users and summarize their perspective well. And we can communicate this back to our business partners in a way they can understand.

3. Visualizing Information

Alignment diagrams are visual stories. Designers are good at representing ideas in graphic form. The visual nature of alignment diagrams makes them compact and immediately understandable.

4. Brainstorming

Alignment diagrams serve as an excellent stimulus for a workshop or brainstorming session. Designers have the skills to creatively brainstorm and lead such sessions.

5. Prototyping Solutions

Exploring different directions is a key aspect of “design thinking.” Designers are well-versed in trying out different options—from sketching to wireframing to prototyping.

Keep in mind that the lines between design-related disciplines are blurring. Service designers increasingly use online services and digital kiosks in their concepts. UX designers must be able to integrate offline support and services into their solutions. IAs need to be able to structure information across channels, including physical spaces. Interaction designers must conceive of workflows and actions across media types and devices.

In the end, alignment diagrams aren’t the domain of one field or the other: they can inform any field. The skills needed to create them, listed above, cross these lines as well.

Getting Started

Alignment diagrams start a conversation towards coherence, bringing actions, thoughts, and people together to foster consensus. More importantly, they focus on creating value—for both the customer and the business.

Understanding the mechanics of alignment diagrams is fairly straight forward. The hard part is getting your foot in the door. Often designers aren’t called in until after a project is already set up. Alignment diagrams, however, really need to impact decisions much earlier in the process—before a project even starts. This means you need to “swim upstream” and reach out to a potentially new set of stakeholders.

For designers in internal teams, you may have access to managers, product owners and other executives who could benefit from alignment diagrams at a strategic level. For external consultants, pitching a case for an alignment diagram effort may be harder: reaching high-level decision makers is difficult. Either way, you’ll need to effectively evangelize alignment diagrams in order to get the time and money to complete one.

Here are some things you can do to get started:

1. Learn about alignment diagrams.

Start by reading books like Indi Young’s Mental Models. Or, check out things like my resources on customer journey mapping on the web [4]. I also have a presentation [5] and an article [6] coauthored with Paul Kahn specifically on alignment diagrams.

2. Sketch draft diagrams for your current project.

What story could you tell on your current project to show where customer value and business value is located? How would best visualize that story in a diagram? Even without any official project scope or user research, you can sketch out a rough map showing the facets of information you’d include, where alignment occurs, and how you would visually convey your message. This is practice in understanding the alignment technique.

3. Complete an alignment diagram “under the wire.”

A formal alignment diagram must be based on real evidence. But this evidence could come from a variety of sources. A high-level customer journey map, for instance, could be created with data from existing research. Or, try adding a few simple questions your next usability test to understand users’ interaction with a service. Create a draft diagram from this data as you do other types of analysis. Present this to stakeholders. It’s likely they’ll find it interesting and ask for more.

4. Find a champion in management.

Seek out business partners who might “get” alignment diagrams. Discuss the possibility of a pilot project with them. For the cost of a normal usability test, for instance, you could create a simple alignment diagram. Unlike outcomes from other types of research, such as marketing studies or usability tests, alignment diagrams do not change very quickly. Be sure to highlight the longevity of an alignment diagram effort to sponsors, and remind them they’ll be able to refer to the information years later.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in learning more about alignment diagrams, James Kalbach has scheduled workshops in Prague and London:

Keep an eye on the Boxes and Arrows Events Calendar for more.

 

Truth is, the business world is becoming increasingly complex. Studies in business complexity show that leaders are unable to cope: they are pulled in different directions and unable to focus [7, 8]. Modern business challenges are wicked problems. All too often, organizations unknowingly pass this complexity on to customers, resulting in negative user experiences.

While they do not guarantee success, alignment diagrams can reduce complexity for both customers and for organizations. They are an antidote to the challenges our business partners face. At a minimum, alignment diagrams start a conversation towards coherence, bringing actions, thoughts, and people together to foster consensus. More importantly, they focus on creating value—for both the customer and the business.

Designers can use their skills to map out value creation and help solve business problems. Empathizing with users and illustrating out their experiences plays a big role. Visualizing touchpoints provides an immediate “big picture” often lacking in many organizations. This can provide a much-needed shift of attention from inside-out to outside-in. Alignment diagrams are a class of documents that seek to address the causes of poor experiences at their roots and ultimately help designers have a real business impact.

 

[1] Brandon Schauer, Service Blueprint, http://adaptivepath.com/ideas/this-thursday-in-sf-service-design-panel-kicker-kickoff

[2] Indi Young, Mental Models (Rosenfeld Media, 2008). http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/mental-models/

[3] Jess McMullin, “Searching for the Center of Design,” Boxes and Arrows (Sept 2003). http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/searching_for_the_center_of_design

[4] James Kalbach, “Customer Journey Mapping Resources on the Web.” http://experiencinginformation.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/customer-journey-mapping-resources-on-the-web/

[5] James Kalbach, “Alignment Diagrams: Strategic UX Deliverables,” Euro IA Conference (Paris, 2010). http://www.slideshare.net/Kalbach/james-kalbach-alignment-diagrams-euro-ia-2010

[6] James Kalbach and Paul Kahn, “Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams,” Parsons Journal of Information Mapping (April 2010). http://piim.newschool.edu/journal/issues/2011/02/pdfs/ParsonsJournalForInformationMapping_Kalbach-James+Kahn-Paul.pdf

[7] IBM, “Capitalizing on Complexity,” (2010). http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/ceo/ceostudy2010/

[8] Booz & Co, “Executives Say They’re Pulled in Too Many Directions and That Their Company’s Capabilities Don’t Support Their Strategy,” (Feb 2011). http://www.strategyand.pwc.com/global/home/press/article/49007867

Storyboarding iPad Transitions

Written by: Greg Nudelman

If your clients are not yet asking you to design transitions, they will likely do that on your next project. Transitions are hot, and not just because they entertain the eye. In confined mobile computing interfaces, on tablet devices or in complex virtual environments, transitions are an authentic, minimalist way of enabling way-finding, displaying system state and exposing crucial functionality – in short, they are key in creating a superior user experience.

Transitions as design elements

Since the 1980s, designers have been drawing wireframes to represent web pages and device interfaces.1 In the beginning, wireframes were static schematics that showed a single state of the page. With the emergence of dHTML in the 1990s, it became necessary to draw different states of specific dynamic page elements, so the designers adapted the wireframe methodology to document the beginning and end states of the dynamic elements. Still, designers and engineers had little or no control over what happened in between the beginning and end states — the browser or the operating system handled all transitions.

More recently, sophisticated mobile touch frameworks like iPhone, Android, Palm and Windows Mobile allowed unprecedented control over the speed and structure of the transitions, giving designers more tools with which to create a better experience in a confined mobile space.2 Simultaneously, on the web, dynamic platforms like Flash and Flex gained tremendous ground, making it possible for designers to think about and document transitions because those were now part of the customer experience.

With the release of the Apple iPad, the Age of Transition has come to its full potential. On the iPad, Apple takes full advantage of some of the principles and ideas the company previously explored and perfected using the iPhone. On the bigger iPad screen, transitions achieve a new level of detail and sophistication, making the device come alive, and become a powerful, integral part of the experience.

Transitions Require Thinking Differently

As Jonathan Follett writes in his article “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2007/04/interfaces-that-flow-transitions-as-design-elements.php, 3 many UX designers approach projects from a combination of information architecture and interaction design. These disciplines involve thinking that is quite different from constructing the continuous linear narratives required to design and document transitions. Nevertheless, by borrowing freely from the lessons of early animators, it is quite possible to adopt the existing wireframes methodology to convey the structure and rhythm of a user interface transition.

The task consists of wireframing each of the important changes (or “key frames”) that occur during the transition and stringing a bunch of wireframes together in a storyboard. By documenting the key aspects of the transition, it is possible to share them with the larger team and try out different transitions designs. Documenting the transitions also allows us to step back and consider them in a larger context of a specific use case or overall goal of progressive engagement and immersion.

Understanding iPad Transitions

In order to be able to design and document transitions using storyboards, we have to first understand design principles that designers of transitions use to convey the desired meaning. Let’s take a look at the Apple, Inc. video in Figure 1 showing selected transitions from what is arguably the most popular iPad application today: iTunes. Although many different transitions are shown in the video, we will be specifically looking at the two of them: “opening the iTunes application” (0:17-0:20 min) and “opening album details” (0:30 -0:36 min).



Figure 1: Video of iTunes transitions on the iPad [“View larger version on YouTube”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z03PR_4Ln90]

Borrowing from Chet and Guy’s excellent Devoxx presentation “Animation Rules!”:http://www.parleys.com/#st=5&sl=1&id=1578,4 we can identify seven key principles that specifically apply to the animated transitions on the iPad:
# Component Relationship (background-foreground)
# Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)
# Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
# Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)
# Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)
# Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)
# Simplicity (avoiding noise)

To understand how the seven principles above apply combine to make the transition work its magic, let’s do a step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Step-by-step breakdown of the “opening the iTunes application” transition.

Figure 2: Opening iTunes Application Step-by-Step

Using our seven key principles:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This transition is essentially the process by which the iTunes application comes into the foreground, while the rest of the apps recede into the background. In the first row, the transition starts out with the home screen and apps icons firmly in the foreground. By the end of the row, we can see that the home screen recedes and darkens, while the iTunes app (represented by a white square) slowly comes into the foreground. By the second row, the background-foreground transition is essentially complete – we can see only the loading iTunes app against the black background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

This transition creates its magic via an illusion of “flying into” the device, and eventually meeting the white square that represents the iTunes app. To accomplish this, the animation shows us “flying” through the layer of the apps icons on the home screen. The other app icons begin to “fly” to the sides of the screen in a circular pattern, as shown in row 1. The most interesting part of the illusion is the kind of “bait-and-switch”. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the app icons never make it off screen. Just before we “pass through the icons layer” and “witness” the icons “flying off screen”, the background goes completely black, and our attention is focused on the white rectangle. The illusion is complete.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)
In this transition, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. In the second row, the background goes completely black, to highlight the change in state. Exaggeration can also be used to warp the shape of an object to emphasize movement, as in is used more in the “genie” effects and transitions.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

Subtle but powerful lighting is used throughout the transition as the primary means for focusing our attention on the foreground of the opening window of the iTunes app through subtle darkening of the background (principle 1). Lighting is also used to accomplish the bait-and-switch in the Illusion principle.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

Our brains know from experience that objects do not start running at top speed or “stop on the dime”. To make the movement more life-like, the animation accelerates into the movement very slowly, picking up pace in later screenshots, as evidenced by the increasing “smudginess” of the icons in the first row. Not surprisingly, the bait-and-switch happens in the fastest moment of the transition to pull of the illusion that the homepage icons actually “fly off screen”. The transition then slows down again in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes content elements, deliberately giving the auxiliary page elements and pictures time to “catch up” and making the page load appear smoother.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

The most effective transitions use real-life elements to provide a frame of reference which makes the animation more realistic. In this case, the icons on the home screen are moving to the sides, creating an overall illusion of moving through space, or deeper “into” the device itself to convey a digital event of opening an application inside the device.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)
The overriding theme of this transition is its apparent simplicity. During the transition, iTunes is not doing anything particularly complicated or earth-shattering. The magic comes not from one particular element, but through carefully blending and combining the lighting and movement to create a smooth cohesive digital dance, perfectly orchestrated from beginning to the end.

Storyboarding iPad Transitions

The key to successfully designing and storyboarding the transitions is understanding and applying the seven animation principles we discussed above. To demonstrate how this can be done, let’s use a slightly more complex transition: the iTunes “opening album details”, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Figure 3: Opening iTunes Album Details Step-by-Step

Here again, we see the seven principles at work:
Component Relationship (background-foreground)

This entire transition can be viewed as bringing the selected album cover into the foreground, while the rest of the iTunes application recedes slightly into the background.

Illusion (motion perception and perceptual constancy)

The animation shows us the illusion of the album flying forward on the screen while flipping 180 degrees. The most interesting part of the illusion is the switch from darker gray “back” of the album to a while loading screen (midway through the second row). This sleigh of hand changes the focus to the white cover to make the transition believable.

Exaggeration (highlighting states, actions, and changes in state)

In this transition again, the lighting effects are used to exaggerate the switch between the background and foreground. Midway through the second row the album turns completely white against the slightly darker background.

Staging (camera view, lighting, focus)

In the beginning the iTunes application darkens gradually, and reaches its full saturation about half-way through the second row to create the background against which the album will be staged. The album, on the other hand, switches first from color to darker gray, then to solid white to jump to the foreground.

Acceleration and Deceleration (slow in and out)

The animation starts slowly, and achieves top speed half-way through the second row to quickly switch from the dark gray flipping rectangle to a solid white loading page. Just as in the previously discussed “opening iTunes” transition, this transition also slows down in the last row to smoothly fade in the iTunes album cover content elements.

Metaphors (using real-world analogies to convey complex digital events)

This transition invokes the magical feeling of opening picking the old LP album off the shelf and flipping it over to see the back cover by creating the illusion of the album jumping off the page and flipping 180 degrees horizontally around the middle.

Simplicity (avoiding noise)

While a bit more complex than the “opening iTunes application”, this transition can nevertheless be adequately described by looking at only 12 screenshots.

Once the transition design principles are understood, the process of drawing the storyboard becomes fairly straightforward. I use the same method that Galileo Galilei used four centuries ago when he first diagrammed the step-by-step movement of the sun spots in 1613.5 The basic transition storyboard for the “Opening iTunes Details” transition is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes

Figure 4: Storyboarding iPad Transitions Using Post-it Notes [“See larger version”:/files/banda/storyboarding-ipad/figure4_ipadtransitions_postitnotes_large.png]

Now Start Making Your Own Transitions

As you try your own hand in transition storyboarding, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Use appropriate materials


To diagram transitions, I prefer to use medium-size post-it notes that measure 3-inch square. I draw each of the steps in the transition using a soft retractable pencil with a good eraser. This allows me to quickly diagram portrait and landscape transitions, and everything in between. Because the iPad is a rectangle, not a square, I leave the extra space left on the right of the post-it note (on the bottom for landscape) to write the additional explanation for each step or simply leave it blank.

Simplify shading


As I said above, on the iPad the lighting is foundation to expressing Component Relationship, Exaggeration, and Staging principles, so it makes sense to take a disciplined approach to drawing various shades of light and dark in your storyboard. I find that the easiest approach is to draw shading on top of the picture as light lines at a 45 degree angle. As you can see in the last three post-its, I use tighter line spacing to indicate progressively darker shading.

Get the basics down first


When I first approach the transition design, I make only the post-its necessary to convey the overall movement of the various elements and basic component relationship. I sketch quickly using very rough strokes, and use a ruler and templates whenever possible to make my job easier.

Stick to 6-8 post-its


As you can see in Figure 4, it is not necessary to draw all 12 original key frames we saw in figure 3. To convey the basic structure of a transition, I typically try to use only 6-8 post-it notes. Using fewer steps keeps me focused on the principle of simplicity: if it takes me more than 8 post-it notes to describe the transition, it is probably too complex and I immediately look for unnecessary elements or animation that needs to be eliminated or scaled back.

Ignore Acceleration and Deceleration


Above we spoke at length about the Acceleration and Deceleration principle. This idea is essential to creating effective, believable transitions. However, when drawing a rough storyboard of 6-8 post-its, this is the one principle that I found can be safely ignored. Once people understand this principle, most folks can extrapolate from your rough drawings to imagine the complete smooth transition “in their mind’s eye”. As long as you make it clear to your team that this is only a rough storyboard that the end result will in fact follow the principle, you can safely ignore the subject and concentrate on the relationship, movement and shading of screen elements.

Draw the complete story


Transitions do not happen in isolation – they are an integral part of the overall customer experience. Thus, when I storyboard transitions, I typically do it in the context of the entire use case. This helps me make sure that the particular transition makes sense in the complete context and in combination with other transitions. For example, when I use the “flip” transition to show the search results on the map, and then use the “slide back” transition to go back to the list of search results, the storyboard will quickly reveal the inconsistency in the mental model of the interface I am trying to create and the problem transition will feel awkward when walking through the use entire storyboard.

Sketch a few different transition designs


When I approach a given transition, I usually try out 3-4 different design approaches to see which transition creates the effect I am seeking. Sometimes I find that I need to create 10 or more sets of ideas for more complex and critical interactions. The point of this initial sketching is not to create the complete and final blueprint, but to help you visualize how a given transition design option would feel with the rest of the app interactions. Doing the transition with post-it notes allows me to quickly add a new transition or re-position the existing post-its to create and try out several different scenarios, often while engaging in the active team discussion. I recommend you make copies or take photos of your boards periodically to preserve promising design directions before repositioning the post-it notes and changing the transition layout again.

Obtain Initial Stakeholder Approval


In addition to helping you find the best design approach, a rough storyboard is also a fantastic tool for conveying various design options to your team for joint discussion and brainstorming as well as for obtaining initial stakeholder buy-in. It’s a lot easier to discuss the merits of a particular transition movement and information architecture when everyone is quite literally on the same page looking at your complete use case storyboard.

Creating the Final Transition Blueprint

When you obtain the initial stakeholder approval using your rough storyboard drawing, you will need to document the final storyboard design that the engineers to actually create. Here you have a couple of options.

One approach is to use Flash to create the transition with the final high-fidelity look and feel. This is certainly a valid option. However, I found Flash to be more useful for higher-fidelity usability testing and final stakeholder approval than for describing transitions to engineers. Here is why: most developers do not read Flash code and most transitions are simply too fast for the eye to understand in detail the subtleties of acceleration and shading simply by looking at a running a Flash file. I have had several instances of getting not exactly what I specified or else getting something completely different, only to have the engineers claim that “this is exactly what the Flash looked like”. This is especially a big problem with distributed multi-lingual teams where communication is an issue.

The method that I found to work well is to specify (e.g. create a wireframe for) each of the frames at regular intervals of every 50-100 milliseconds for the entire duration of the transition. Most transitions are between 0.5 – 1.2 seconds, so you will need to create anywhere between 5-24 wireframes in your favorite wireframing tool such as Fireworks, OmniGraffle or Visio. Stringing these frames together in document pages will create a short movie that will comprise the complete blueprint that will describe the position, shading, and movement of each element that will communicate clearly and exactly so the engineers can create the exact transition you envisioned.

While this seems at first like a lot of work, after a bit of practice the wireframing goes fairly quickly, as the difference between the each new page and the one before it is only a slight change in position and shading. As long as we firmly keep in mind the principles by which iPad transitions work, we can easily diagram relevant steps for rich, expressive transitions.

To continue this conversation, add a comment below or reach out to Greg at “@designcaffeine”:http://twitter.com/designcaffeine or through his website, “DesignCaffeine.com”:http://www.DesignCaffeine.com.

Interested in more UX sketching techniques? Join us Saturday, May 28th, 2011 at UX SketchCamp [“SketchCamp.com”:http://www.sketchcamp.com or “@sketchcamp”:http://twitter.com/sketchcamp on Twitter] in San Francisco for a chance to learn from the experts, practice UX sketching and share what you know with others.

References

1. “Wireframing Marathon Starts”:http://ciohappyhour.com/wireframing-marathon-starts/; CIO Happy Hour, September 2010

2. See my article “Designing Mobile Search: Turning Limitations into Opportunities”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/03/designing-mobile-search-turning-limitations-into-opportunities.php; UX Matters, March 2010.

3. Jonathan Follett; “Interfaces That Flow: Transitions as Design Elements”:http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2007/04/interfaces-that-flow-transitions-as-design-elements.php; UX Matters, July 2007

4. Chet Haase and Romain Guy; “Animation Rules!”:http://www.parleys.com/#st=5&sl=1&id=1578; Devoxx ’09

5. Galileo documented the movement of the sun spots in his triumphant “Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari e Loro Accidenti Rome”:http://physics.ship.edu/~mrc/pfs/110/inside_out/vu1/Galileo/Things/g_sunspots.html (History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their Properties); 1613.

So You Wanna Build a Library, Eh?

Written by: Nathan Curtis

Modular Web Design book coverThe following article is an abridged version of Chapter 7 of Nathan Curtis’s 2009 book, Modular Web Design published by New Riders. The book’s first half addresses how to modularly break down your design, build it back up, and communicate in new and interesting ways. With those design techniques in hand, the book then drills into how to organize and build a library, teach it to others, and establish a process for maintaining it for an organization.


Legos are so freakin' awesome!!! Design patterns and modular components are effective techniques for designing and building long-lasting, consistent experiences. You may reach the point where you ask yourself “Is it time to build a library for our team?”

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial. It takes time and effort to get off the ground, can trigger significant and uncomfortable organizational change, and comes with an ongoing maintenance cost. In some cases, libraries are not the answer and yes, sometimes libraries fail. Nobody wants to invest the time, effort, and personal capital only to have nothing to show for it.

Therefore, precede any kind of library build out with a period of discernment. Before you dive, ask yourself and your teammates the following eight questions to gauge whether a library is right for you.

1. Why Do You Want Create a Library?

What is your primary rationale for building a library? What motivates you?
At the top of nearly everyone’s list is usually one of two benefits: efficiency or consistency. Some value speed through reuse: get design done faster, be more productive, save time, save money! Others see opportunities for governance and consistency, using the library as a baseline to sustain a design system over time.

Many teams have realized incredible efficiencies, savings, and better design through design libraries and related standards. However, building a library isn’t trivial.

Beyond efficiency and consistency, other benefits that drive teams include:

Memory: A destination to record and refer to all the design decisions made in creating a large-scale experience.

Portability: Designers come and go. Project priorities change. A library should make you more nimble in shifting resourcing and focus.

Vocabulary: Establish and promote common understanding that includes terms you use for items, page types, and even deliverables.

Authority: Provide a more credible resource on which to make design decisions, prioritize efforts, and easily refer to conventions.

Predictability: Have a foundation to discuss and more closely approximate the impact of a design decision.

Collaboration: Amp up collaboration in your organization to trigger conversations, share knowledge, and learn together.

2. Are You Building the Right Kind of Library?

When it comes to libraries, teams usually find themselves choosing between a library of patterns or components.

A design pattern is a solution to a recurring problem. Patterns offer principles to follow and avoid specifics like style, editorial guidelines, page location, and finalized code. Libraries of design patterns are ideal for teams that design many experiences, such as Yahoo’s team that designs products with unique visual systems that adhere to a larger, common brand.

A component is a chunk of a page design. Experiences can reuse components for navigation (such as header, footer, and local nav), content (such as video players and page titles), and more. A component library is ideal for organizations that have built a system of modular HTML and CSS, and these teams can complement the code library with a collection of reusable design assets for wireframes or comps.

Choosing between patterns and components may not be an either / or question. In fact, one team built libraries for both patterns (for example, Tabs) as well as components (for example, tabbed product details, tabbed content module, tabbed search results, and so on). Other teams have hedged their bets by embedding aspects of one approach into the guidelines and spirit of the other, most commonly via pattern-like guidelines incorporated into the more specific component definitions.

Consider a pattern library if your team has:

  • Many design systems that are intentionally different or will not be reconciled into a single component library.
  • Capability to document patterns more specific than public libraries like Yahoo Design Patterns, welie.com, and ui-patterns.com.
  • Known opposition to prescriptive approaches, but a willingness to use common guidelines.

Consider a component library if your team has:

  • A specific visual design system, including grid(s), layout, color palettes and typography.
  • Many reusable components (page “chunks”) within that system.
  • Diverse groups across an organization that must work together using that system.
  • Interest in and capability of sustaining that design and code system across groups, projects and time.
  • Strong, centralized influence to create, deploy, and maintain a library (or plans to centralize influence via a library).
A comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. A team could consider … include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.

Finally, a comprehensive library of design standards doesn’t end with design patterns and modular components. Instead, a team could consider expanding their repertoire to include the design frameworks espoused by Robert Hoekman as well as common standards like page types/templates, editorial standards, a style guide, and more.

3. Is Your Experience Ready for a Library?

Ok, so you’ve got dreams of efficiencies, consistency, standards, and more. However, just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library. In fact, there are plenty of websites for which a library won’t net any benefit. You should take a long, hard look at your design system to ensure it warrants a library.

Scale: Libraries can be invaluable to large, distributed teams supporting many products or a site with thousands – or millions – of pages. On the other hand, if you are a small and tight-knit team constantly communicating across cube walls, then there’s no need to codify standards. Heck, there’s no need to document anything at all – just get real and build stuff.

Relevance: Rarely do experiences of any scale contain no reusable elements. However, some site areas – like an e-commerce checkout or an account management portal – may be unique, built once, and not duplicated again short of a redesign. Why standardize something that’s never reused?

Stability: Be careful not to standardize an experience too soon. A design system should stabilize before you invest in codifying layouts, grids, typography, patterns, and components.

Disparity: Instead of one simple set of grids, styles, and reusable chunks, you may have multiple, distinct design systems. Do you merge them into one library? If now, is it worth it to create distinct and potentially overlapping libraries?

4. Is Someone Ready to be a Librarian?

Just because you’ve built a website, that doesn’t automatically imply that you should build a library.

Building and sustaining a component library takes an evangelizing advocate. That person may be you, or someone you manage or work with. Almost always, the librarian wears many hats:

Leader: You’ll promote a new way of thinking, shepherding participants into common practice and evangelizing the techniques, benefits, and spirit of the library.

Target: You’ll be a lightning rod for the library, and even the cause of controversy in a design organization. Others may point to you as the standards police that constrains them from being creative.

Writer: You’ll be an author, or at least a contributor and reviewer of other’s contributions, for items like guidelines, library cheat sheets, and blog posts.

Teacher: You’ll teach principles and basic fundamentals about what’s where and how to use it. Help requests can be disruptive, and you’ll have to be patient, determined, and flexible.

5. Is Your Design Team Ready for a Library?

A library can transform how a team operates. Gone are the days where every project is a blank canvas where a designer creates a creative and original work of art. Instead, designers are equipped with helpful starting points as a framework in which to operate. Those constraints can be simultaneously welcome and controversial.

Above all, your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel. Templates with grids, libraries, styles, and pre-made page chunks don’t turn designers into robotic automatons. But designers often react that way. You’ll have to convince designers that library starting points can focus creativity.

Other team attributes that influence library readiness include:

Size: How big is your design team? The larger the team, the more likely techniques, styles and deliverables vary. Libraries and templates can get your team synched up and communicating more consistently.

Overlap: How much do designs contain overlapping patterns and components? If your team is designing towards a common experience, a library can be a key part of a holistic strategy.

Distribution: Is your team spread out geographically? Standard design assets can mitigate impacts of reduced face-to-face collaboration.

Adaptability: Will your team be able to adapt to design practices that involve a library?

Stability: How stable is your team? Do designers come and go often? Learning library details is an investment with a return that increases the longer each designer uses it.

Advocacy: Do you have team members that are jazzed about or knowledgeable of reuse? Are they willing to be partners or champions?

6. Is Your Organization Ready for a Library?

Your team will have to overcome the misconception that a library is about constraining innovation. You want to – you need to – stop reinventing the wheel.

You’ll need to have a pitch that explains the library in simple and concrete terms. What is it? How does it work? What does it mean to me? These questions hint at the profound impacts a library can have:

Workflow: Design libraries impact at least two critical workflows: how you produce a solution for each project and how you maintain assets, guidelines, and documentation across projects.

Collaboration: Do key team members – such as engineers and designers – have a common foundation to communicate on?

Documentation: You got to make it easy for people to refer to, find, learn, and integrate reusable assets into their own practices, whether via a component ID annotation on a wireframe, a PDF’s link to online documentation, or consistent HTML comments in your code.

Timing: When change is in the air, there may be opportunity to insert a library into the discussion and approach. Can you time the expansion of your library to dovetail with when your experience are already undergoing significant change?

7. Is Management Ready to Support a Library?

None of your planning and efforts will matter if you lack management support. They must vocalize a public belief in your effort as well as pony up time, money, and resources. It’s your duty to communicate a plan – and the return on that investment – to sell your management on why a library matters.

Unfortunately, even when the library is otherwise a good idea, management support sometimes wavers in instances like:

Lack of Priority: It can happen to the best of teams. You get your top talent together, you start roughing out a framework, and then projects hit. You get distracted. It’s up to management to carve out sufficient time for you, or else the library becomes stale and ineffective.

Insufficient Hardware and Software: It’s up to managers to ensure that designers have the right hardware and software installed so they can use the design assets. My confusion turned into empathy when I sat at a designer’s desk and watched for TEN MINUTES as the software tool launched on his out-of-date laptop. My query of “This is unacceptable. Haven’t you asked for an update?” was met with “You can only ask so many times” and a shrug.

Leadership and Evangelism: Ensure management is on message. Prep them with simple ways to communicate library value and help them avoid undermining you with explanations like “the library is another good idea, but if it doesn’t work for you, shouldn’t disrupt your own personal approach if you feel your way is more effective.”

Background Support: Public declarations are important, but so are the back-channel efforts. Your managers need to open doors to connect you with key players and partners. Knowing what doors to open is a two-way street, so help your managers understand the obstacles and why you need help.

8. So, Are You Really Ready to Build a Library?

Take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

So, your design system is stable, you’ve got some champions backing you up, and you know just what your organization needs. You are ready to put yourself on the line. You believe.

Then take a deep breath, because you’ve got a fun ride ahead.

Creating a UX library diagram
Diagram of How to Create a UX Design Library (PDF)

Up next, you’ll want craft a plan and read all you can from all the best authors and online resources. You then discover, organize, and prioritize what goes in your library. You’ll setup a platform for managing your catalog and publishing your standards. You may even equip one or more software tools with a library of reusable assets so that your team can create better design and deliverables, faster.

It’s time to build a library.

Integrating Prototyping Into Your Design Process

Written by: Fred Beecher
Just like with any other UX research or design tool, context plays a critical role in determining how effective prototyping will be for you.

Prototyping is a big deal right now. We get wrapped up in mailing list threads, new tools are released at an astonishing pace, books are being published, and articles show up on Boxes & Arrows. Clients are even asking for prototypes. But here’s the thing… prototyping is not a silver bullet.

There is no one right way to do it.

However, prototyping is a high silver content bullet. When aimed well, a prototype can answer design questions and communicate design ideas. In this article, I talk about the dimensions of prototype fidelity and how you can use them to choose the most effective prototyping method for the questions you need answered.

The dimensions of fidelity

A prototype’s fidelity has the most influence over its effectiveness. Fidelity simply refers to how realistic the prototype is. Most of the time when we talk about a “high-fidelity” prototype we are referring to a prototype that has some visual or industrial design applied to it. But that leaves out what’s most important to UX designers, what it’s like to actually work with the prototype!

Fidelity is multidimensional.

Not only can you have a prototype that looks like a realistic product, but you can also have a prototype that works like a realistic product. I call these dimensions of fidelity “visual fidelity” and “functional fidelity.” By varying your prototyping methodology along these two dimensions you can ensure that your prototyping effort is successful given your particular context. Let’s take a look at some examples.

version w/ arrows

A prototype can be as simple as a series of hand-sketched wireframes that flow together. This is a good example of a low visual fidelity prototype. These wireframes show layout and functionality but have no visual design. Take the same wireframes, integrate a visual design, and your prototype has a high visual fidelity. While you might think of them as being similar, these two prototypes are most effective in two different situations.

That same series of sketches is also a low functional fidelity prototype. Moving through screens drawn on paper is much different than working with the developed system. But if you render those sketches in HTML, JavaScript, & CSS, they have a high functional fidelity. Working with an interactive prototype is very similar to working with the developed system. Again, high- and low-fidelity prototypes are most effective in two completely different situations.

After spending all this time talking about fidelity, I want to share one of my favorite quotes on prototyping. Bill Buxton said this in his Interaction08 keynote:

There is no such thing as high or low fidelity, only appropriate fidelity.

Appropriate Fidelity

“Appropriate fidelity” refers to a level of prototype fidelity that allows you to achieve the goals you’ve set for doing a prototype in the first place. By varying the fidelity of your prototype along the dimensions of visual design and functionality, you make your prototype more effective at achieving some goals and less effective for others.

bottom left Low Visual and Low Functional Fidelity

Very low fidelity prototypes are extremely useful to UX designers. Why? They can be made swiftly, changed without repercussion, and still help visualize a concept. Low visual & functional fidelity prototypes are helpful at answering large structural questions. Here are some examples:

  • Does the system have all the features required to support the user’s goals?
  • Does the workflow make sense at a high level?
  • Which UX concept works best?
  • Coming to consensus on a UX concept with stakeholders, e.g.“Is this what you meant?”

bottom right Low Visual and High Functional Fidelity

In my own practice, this is the type of prototyping I do most often. What I make are interactive, HTML interactive wireframes. Everything is black, white, and gray, but the interactions are extremely close to what they’d be in the developed system. These types of prototypes are effective in many situations:

  • Evaluating the usability of proposed designs for new systems
  • Exploring isolated interactions as a proof-of-concept
  • Validating UX design direction with stakeholders
  • Validating the implementation of requirements with stakeholders
  • Supplementing printed documentation for development teams
  • Performing remote testing

Remote testing has become more and more important over the last several years. At Evantage, we do approximately 75% of our user testing remotely. It would be difficult for us to get good data about our designs for modern, highly interactive sites if we were limited to representing those designs using low-to-medium functional fidelity prototyping techniques such as clickable PDFs or interactive PowerPoint presentations.

By prototyping isolated interactions at a high functional fidelity and testing them with users, I can get really good data about whether that interaction works before I base an application around it…. If those ideas are actually pretty slick, I can release the design with confidence instead of with gritted teeth.

I also want to expand on proof-of-concept testing. This technique supports creativity and innovation. By prototyping isolated interactions at a high functional fidelity and testing them with users, I can get really good data about whether that interaction works before I base an entire application around it. This allows me to explore my crazy ideas and find out if they are, in fact, crazy. But if it turns out that those ideas are actually pretty slick, I’ll know that and can release the design with confidence instead of with gritted teeth.

top left High Visual and Low Functional Fidelity

At first thought, these prototypes may not make much sense. Why bother making something look nice if it doesn’t work? Well, because how something looks can have a huge impact on how easy it is to use. A high visual and low functional fidelity prototype allows you to test that with users. You can print out screen images and do a paper prototype test with them, or you can image map some JPGs and do what I’ve heard termed a “slap and map” test from within a browser.

top right High Visual and High Functional Fidelity

High visual and functional fidelity prototypes are the Rolls-Royce of prototypes. They take more time and effort to build than a lower fidelity prototype and are correspondingly more complicated to manage. Most of the time, this extra cost isn’t worth it. But there are a few situations where it is:

  • Evaluating the usability of proposed UX designs for an existing system
  • Performing usability tests with non-savvy user groups
  • Supplementing printed documentation for offshore development teams

Prototype testing is all about data, right? In the first two situations above, the prototype’s high visual fidelity reduces the confounding factors a wireframey prototype can introduce into test results, thus maintaining the quality of your data. In the third situation, the high visual fidelity helps minimize the design communication and interpretation problems inherent in offshore development.

Integrating Prototyping Into Your Design Process

What I’ve talked about so far has focused on the tactical, on how to prototype effectively to achieve specific goals. What I want to talk about now is more strategic. How can you integrate prototyping effectively into your design process?

First off, do what you’d do to begin any organizational change. Start small. Find a small project, express the value of prototyping and your interest in doing it, and do it. It would be best to start with something richly interactive though, as prototyping is more crucial the more interactive a system is. Of course, make sure you use a prototype of the right visual and functional fidelity for your purpose.

People like shiny things that move. The cool factor of prototyping will be difficult to resist.

As you near completion of the prototype, make sure you walk through the prototype with the project’s stakeholders. Ask them if something like this was what they had in mind. This will impress them on two levels. First, people like to feel important, and you’re soliciting their opinions. Second, people like shiny things that move. The cool factor of prototyping will be difficult to resist. When these stakeholders are involved in future projects, it’s very likely they will actually request a prototype as a result of their first experience with you.

Once you get buy-in, you can start integrating prototyping into your process. But just like different methods of prototyping are more effective for answering certain questions, different business contexts call for different ways to integrate prototyping.

Corporate, Agile, Mature UX Practice

This situation is fast-paced and iterative, but as an employee (as opposed to a contractor or consultant) you have the opportunity to own the UX of your company’s products. In this situation, there are three points in the design process that prototyping can be of benefit.

  • Low visual and functional fidelity prototypes can help select good UX concepts from several that you develop at the beginning of a project.
  • High functional fidelity proof-of-concept prototypes can help develop those concepts into usable designs.

You can work with a dedicated prototyper to build a separate prototype using code that can be reused in the production system to build efficiencies into an Agile process.

Corporate, Waterfall, New UX Practice

In this situation, the organization might not be comfortable enough with UX design to support the development of multiple UX concepts. You might just have to begin developing the wireframes and prototypes to meet the organization’s need for documentation and measurable signs of progress. This situation relies heavily on the prototype for communicating and validating direction with project stakeholders, with user testing often not yet being a real possibility. Here’s how prototyping can help:

  • High functional fidelity prototypes can help you communicate better with stakeholders and get their input on your direction
  • These prototypes should also be used for user testing, if at all possible.
  • Walk through the interactive prototype at the same time you walk through the printed documentation for the developers during handoff.

Consulting/Agency

When doing UX design for an external client, a lot of the magic is worked behind the scenes. The result is a process that is relatively unencumbered by internal politics. The challenge is to convey the importance of iterative prototyping to clients who sometimes feel like they’re paying for the same thing twice.

  • Sketch two or three of your design concepts into simple, low visual and functional fidelity prototypes and test them to decide which to go with. At this stage, testing can be very informal and done with anyone capable of putting themselves in the user’s shoes (e.g., other UX designers, customer service staff, or product managers who used to be users).
  • Build a small interactive prototype that shows the critical interactions, walk through it with stakeholders to validate your direction, then test with users.
  • Revise the prototype based on the test results, flesh it out to support more holistic tasks, and test again.
  • Revise the prototype and use it to supplement the paper documentation as you walk through both with the development team.

Just like with any other UX research or design tool, context plays a critical role in determining how effective prototyping will be for you. If you follow the simple guidelines above and prototype to an appropriate level of fidelity for your context, you will achieve your goals and improve your design. No firearms required.

The Content Conundrum

Written by: Christopher Detzi

rocks, intro image

As web designers and information architects, we often dismiss deep consideration of content when we design interactive experiences. By content I’m not only referring to the various forms of text (e.g., headers, body copy, error messages) but also imagery, graphics, and videos or audio that make up the full interactive experience.

Sure, we have a sense of what content is available, and we’ve likely considered it to some extent when creating flows, wireframes, and prototypes. But the design artifacts that we create represent only part of the overall user experience that we’re designing. The content that sits inside of our design framework is often the final arbiter of success, yet we sometimes diminish its importance and separate ourselves from it. The more we separate our design activities from content development, the greater the risk of design failure.

Recognizing The Problem — The Content Gap

There’s often an unsettling discrepancy between the stakeholder approved wireframes and visual comps and the actual product in production. What you see in those environments is sometimes a far cry from those polished wireframes and those shiny, pixel-perfect visualizations that were filled with placeholder content (such as lorem ipsum text, dummy copy, and image blocks). What you’re seeing in production environments now holds the real content. The imagery doesn’t support the interactions, is meaningless, useless, or worse, contradictory to the design intent. The copy, headers, and labels are unclear, too long, too short, or simply irrelevant.

What happened?

More than likely, that content was discussed, created, and iterated outside or separate from the core design review process and ultimately plugged into a content management system (or pasted into the code by a developer) much later in the development process.

The example illustrated in Figure 1 shows two examples of web content. The image on the left represents a screen shot of the approved design that was delivered to the production team. The image on the right is a screen shot of that same page taken from a functional test environment after the real content was included. As you can see, the experience breaks down considerably with the amount, type, and format of the real content. The information is more difficult to scan, the primary call-to-action has been pushed well below the fold, and the choices that users need to make are less clear.

These two screens show what the content gap looks like. On the left is the mockup next to what it looked like in production.

While this example highlights only a small portion of the overall web site, the problem manifested itself throughout the bulk of pages that made up this interactive experience. So what might be perceived as a small problem becomes a much bigger problem when considered across the entire interactive experience.

Exploring the Causes

These content gaps are both procedural and cultural within organizations. By procedural, I’m referring to the tangible processes used by an organization to design and develop a web product. Often times, these ‘processes’ are influenced by the organization’s values and overall culture. There are four common reasons why content gaps occur.

Flawed Processes

There’s undoubtedly a wide spectrum of web design and development ‘processes’ in use today. Most often, however, organizations use one that aligns more closely with either a traditional waterfall process or alternatively, an Agile one. In theory, both models have mechanisms built-in to eliminate and minimize surprises (including content gaps) but in reality, both tend to exacerbate the problem but do so in different ways. Rigid waterfall processes fail because they tend to segment activities and related roles. Designers often design totally separate from content ideation and development. Agile processes fail because they’re typically developer centric and move at speeds and iterations more akin to code production than to experience design and content development. The site is often being coded before the design or content are ever completed.

Content The Design(er) is King

We’re at a point now where usability is table stakes, and persuasion and message is necessary to differentiate products.

The value of most design projects is typically placed in the upfront design and strategy work. It’s here that the ‘big ideas’ are generated and explored. During this initial phase, are the right people involved in the design process alongside of us, exploring solutions? I’d argue that we rarely involve our content partners, even though we’re essentially creating a framework for communication and messaging. It’s here that content specialists thrive. We’d benefit from including those who specialize in communication, writing, persuasion, and instruction more directly. We might argue that as designers that we have those skills, but then we shouldn’t rely so heavily on placeholder content in our designs.

There’s a lot we can learn from traditional advertising here. In advertising, copywriters often drive the creative process. Their skills with communications and persuasive messaging are often unparalleled within an agency. We’re at a point now where usability is table stakes, and persuasion and message is necessary to differentiate products. In fact, some leading companies are beginning to recognize this change and develop tools and/or POVs on this topic (See Eric Schaffer’s article, “Beyond Usability; designing web sites for persuasion, emotion, and trust” and Forrester Research’s report, “Use Persuasive Content to Improve the Customer Experience”).

Design artifacts rarely include “real” content

I understand the need for lorem ipsum text and placeholder imagery. I am an information architect, after all. When working on an overarching framework for a web experience and creating a flexible design system, it makes sense to start with concepts and relationships, and to establish the right models and structures first. However, the more we start illustrating these concepts at the page level, the more we must concern ourselves with content and the overall message we want to create. By relying too heavily on placeholder text and graphics, we begin to communicate a level of reality that is problematic. It’s at this point in the process that the actual content should be considered and where our design deliverables should communicate these details.

Obviously, exploration of visual styles, hierarchy, and the overall visual language is crucial at this stage. That said, effective content to support those elements is absolutely essential for design success. The content works in conjunction with our visual language and style to help people move through and understand the information space they’re in. The more the design and content can be explored, iterated, and finalized together during this phase, the fewer problems we’ll encounter when the site goes live. Dr. Browyn Jones said it best in her 2007 article, titled Better Writing Through Design:

“Ideally, you should work with a writer from day one to design the voice of the copy in conjunction with the visual language of the site. And getting a writer involved early can help you solve lots of other problems—from content strategy issues to information architecture snags. Remember that writers are creatives too, and they are, in many cases, the keepers of the content your design ultimately serves.”

Lack of value assigned to content

When taken as a whole, the general perception is that content teams are production teams and therefore non-creative. Taken as a whole, content teams are typically highly focused on production and publishing issues. An unfortunate side effect is that these individuals are brought in much too late in the process, immediately playing catch-up, and trying to understand the bigger design decisions that were made. In many cases, the only information that they have to go on is a lot of ‘lorem ipsum’ or other placeholder content.

What Designers Can Do to Address these Problems

As a design community the first thing we can do is recognize the problem and want to fix it. I’d suggest that we look at it selfishly at first, realizing that if content fails, our designs fail. Period. There are a number of tactical things we can do with every project to mitigate the risks.

1. Rethink the need for specific content

Do you really need that introductory text? What about those thumbnail images? What will those elements really accomplish for your design? Are they necessary? Many of the content components we include don’t contribute to design goals or the users ability to perform a task. Simply remove those from the design entirely. The more concrete we are about what is and isn’t open for interpretation (or worse, misrepresentation) the fewer surprises we’ll see in those functional environments.

2. Explore Information Graphics & Visualizations

Take a step back from your designs and see what information can be communicated more effectively using visualizations and/or informational graphics. Let the user’s ‘scanning’ behavior work to your advantage. What can be communicated better with simple imagery than with text? How can that general concept be applied to your overall design paradigm? This critical extra step will improve and streamline the user experience. If you’re not the best person to create these assets, bounce your ideas off of the visual designers and production artists. Reviewing your own work this way will dramatically improve your design. As a bonus, the more perspectives you hear during this process, the better informed you’ll be to solve the design problem.

3. Write (some) content

If you can’t get a copywriter or content expert working with you from day one, spend some time writing draft content or sketching actual imagery and place it into your design artifacts. The goal isn’t to be perfect, but to communicate to stakeholders and partners the intent behind a particular content element or component. Bring the design to life and create actual content, headlines, text, instructions, headers, and imagery. Force feedback on those elements at the same time This will force you to think through the necessity of the content, the importance of the message, and force the same thought from your stakeholders. This means using lorem ipsum sparingly, particularly when designing critical web pages or elements that significantly impact the experience. Don’t rely on someone else to do it without first thinking hard about it yourself.

4. (Really) Collaborate with your content partners

The collaboration that we demand from developers should parallel those we have with our content partners: copywriters, strategists, production artists.

The collaboration that we demand from developers should parallel those we have with our content partners: copywriters, strategists, production artists. Often times, the content teams or copywriters are working with brand, marketing, or product teams on the creation of ‘final’ content. They understand what those teams need to accomplish and what they’re trying to communicate. Rather than have that process happen without your oversight, get involved early and often with these people and describe your vision, solicit their input, and ask for help clarifying your message and assumptions. This back and forth (like the one we expect to have with development) needs to happen with our content partners as well. Become friends with them. Remember, their skills at persuasion, messaging, branding, and simply overall writing prowess can only improve our designs.

5. Package real content with the visual mock-ups

Whether it’s visual comps, or a prototype, it’s important that whomever is responsible for creating and approving the content is actually involved with the visual designer and prototyper as they ‘package’ that deliverable. It’s impossible to fully evaluate the effectiveness of a web experience without having the content represented and under the same microscope as the design. Brand, product, and even training teams all have their own perspectives about what the content must communicate and are contributing to its development and we don’t want our design to fall apart once this ’collaborative’ writing process starts. Assign accountability to content upfront and place content professionals under the same creative deadlines you’re marching to.

There are a variety of tools and software emerging that can help you work with content. For example, Adobe InCopy hooks into Adobe InDesign. It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing integration points with Photoshop and other standard web design software and tools. But even without formal tools, the important step is that ‘real’ content is represented and tells a more complete story about the design you want to put out there.

Conclusion

It’s up to you to assess whether these content gaps are a problem in your design environment or not. Admittedly, this problem is more applicable to larger web sites and online businesses given variety of stakeholders (read: opinions). That doesn’t mean that these concepts don’t apply to the social web, or smaller marketing or micro web-sites. They do. It’s just that how critical this issue is depends on the size and scope of the website or application you’re designing.

This problem is common in many organizations (small and large). As a design community, we hold the power to 1.) change how we think about content, 2.) bring other roles into our processes, and 3.) change how we communicate with stakeholders and partners. Collaboration is what we strived for when developers shut us out, now it’s our turn to open up and let our content partners in and build even better experiences for our customers.