Arrows in Our Quiver

Written by: Marla Olsen

As I write this the Police’s “Synchronicity” is on the radio and that’s a good way of summing up some of the interesting developments experienced during the past few months.

On mailing lists, at conferences, in conversations at cocktail hours, I’m starting to see a growing awareness of how our various disciplines form a community of practice.

At last month’s SIG-CHI, I helped lead a workshop that looked at how traditional HCI (human-computer interaction) compares to the “new” information architecture by looking at our deliverables. What was striking were the similarities found between them. Looking at what we do, it was hard to tell if someone should be called information architect, interaction designer or usability engineer.

Obviously there were differences in focus depending on whether someone was working on a software application or a portal site. And often times the same deliverables or process might have completely different names. One person’s scenario was another person’s use case. But a deliverable by any other name still serves the same purpose. Hairsplitting can be fun, and I’ve done my share of it, but let’s not lose sight of things.

Alan Cooper made the point eloquently at the previous days’ SIGCHI/AIGA Experience Design Forum (which incidentally was the first joint event between the two organizations). Cooper called on people to end the terminology debate and learn to appreciate each other’s skills. We can choose which skills to learn, and each skill becomes an arrow in the quiver that we can use when needed.

That’s what we’re here to do at Boxes and Arrows: help us all learn about the wide variety of arrows that are available, and when and how to best use each one.

Which brings me to a complaint I’ve heard about Boxes and Arrows—it’s too much to read every word every week.

That’s fine. We won’t stop you if you don’t want to read the whole thing, but I like to think of our content as rich and varied buffet for our community of practices. Not everything may be particularly relevant or compelling for you during a particular week. If that’s the case, we hope you’ll check back next week, since the buffet will always be changing.

But more than that we hope you’ll let us know what’s not on the menu that’s particularly appetizing to you. What topics should we be covering? Let us know.

We’re particularly interested in hearing how we can not only talk among ourselves but talk to the business people who set the direction and the technologists who make things happen.

Having a successful product (including websites and software) requires hitting the right intersection among business goals, technological feasibility and design desirability. So Boxes and Arrows hopes to help integrate our own wide array of skills with others’ skills, in order to have the fullest and richest quiver available in our joint efforts to hit that target.

(P.S. Thanks to Keith Instone, Peter Boersma and Lisa Chan who co-organized the HCI/IA workshop.)

George Olsen
Editor, Chief Curmudgeon
Boxes and Arrows

Speaking in Tongues

Written by: Christina Wodtke

In last month’s welcome, I set out to describe Boxes and Arrows purpose and goals. On a line by itself I stated this is not a place for jargon. I felt that was important enough to call out. I certainly am being called to task for that.

Jargon is not using a fancy word appropriately, but it is jargon when the fancy word replaces a simpler correct word.

Perhaps I should have stated this will be a place free of jargon. Ridding our writing of jargon is a good goal, but a more complex task than one might think. That said, it’s important to define what jargon is and what jargon isn’t.

Jargon is words used as a gating mechanism. We use jargon when we wish to keep out those who are not like “us” whomever “us” may be. Jargon is when we replace perfectly good accessible English with slang, acronyms and other mangled phraseology. “Monetize” was a dot-com jargon term. It meant, “find a way to make a profit from” and was used partially out of laziness and partially to make people using the word feel like insiders (and perhaps not morons who forgot they had to make a dime on their crazy schemes) 80-20 was a rule for profits—20 percent of your users provide 80 percent of your profit—that became a noun. “Well Joe, the way I see it, it’s an 80-20.“

Jargon is not using a fancy word appropriately, but it is jargon when the fancy word replaces a simpler correct word. Paradigm has often given me fits because it is a perfectly good word… it’s just been abused. People often use it when “model” is probably a better choice. Utilize frequently replaces use when use is the right word. But there is an appropriate time to use utilize… when one means use for profit. We may even choose to utilize jargon if it will serve our sinister purposes in undermining the current design paradigm—but not if there is a better way—a clear, simple ordinary language way.

And jargon is not using a big word that you have to look up. Sometimes when we seek to be precise, we use big words. It happens. A dictionary is a good investment.

Acronyms happen. We have to stay alert for them. One man’s A List Apart is another woman’s American Library Association. ALA means different things depending on what crowd you run with.

New words are born when no word existed previously. It wasn’t that long ago that there was no such thing as an internet, or a CPU, or a handheld. To refuse to use these terms because they might be perceived as jargon would be foolishly handicapping ourselves in the service of communicating.

Finally our authors deserve to be allowed to be eloquent. Adam Greenfield’s style is not Jess McMullin’s, and neither writes like Nathan Shedroff. Nor would we want them to: Boxes and Arrows is composed of people, with a myriad of different voices and different word choices. We will edit to keep their writing accessible, but we will endeavor not to kill the poetry of their language. Writing is a scary and vulnerable activity. An author deserves to have his or her words respected, and editing should enhance and not squash.

So with all these challenges, why try? We try because Boxes and Arrows seeks to be inclusive, not exclusive. We want to cross lines to learn and communicate, and jargon is, as I said, a gating mechanism. So I’ll stick with my earlier statement, though I’ll modify it somewhat:

We will seek to keep this place free of jargon. We will enlist you, the reader to keep us honest. Every article has a discuss link, call us out on the carpet when we say LIS-IA, or directing eyeballs. Definitely bust us when we complain ED is not as good as UX because the CHI’ers are more user-centric in their dev-cycles because of the x-mod they do, while ED is all amusement parks and des9.

In return we’ll do our level best to talk straight.

Christina Wodtke
Publisher

Welcome to Boxes and Arrows

Written by: Christina Wodtke

Many months ago, an information architect named David Bloxsom came over for lunch. We both faced an idle post-crash afternoon, so a bottle of Trader Joe’s three-dollar pinot grigio was cracked. We talked about information architecture and trying to get the field to mature. We talked about how the ASIS journal was too academic, too complex for most folks to penetrate. We talked about Web Review, Site Point, and A List Apart and how they were just too basic for most IAs we knew. By the time the bottle was empty we had sunburns and a vision for a magazine. A magazine that would be plainspoken and smart, that would tackle the thorny issues that trying to design structure in new information spaces such as the web, software and wireless created. A journal for practitioners, for those everyday folks just trying to make their product better while ducking the layoff ax.

I hope this ’zine will make us all a bit smarter when we are through. And that is bigger than any tagline, bigger than our semantic antics, bigger than the politics and cross-company infighting.

Next (after a nap) I emailed around to create my dream team… all IAs, but all from different backgrounds. Former designers, programmers, writers and usability wonks that had stepped up and said, “This thing needs an architecture,” and proceeded to design something better. I wanted a journal that was by IAs for IAs.

But I suppose this was a foolhardy assumption on my part—I considered them purely IAs because they did what I did and I was an IA. But they also considered themselves interaction designers, experience designers, user experience designers…well, you get the picture. Over the last several weeks, all the issues we’ve seen again and again on listservs and blogs rose up again among my carefully chosen staff. The best laid plans of mice and me…

But it wasn’t a waste of time. Through all these arguments, we hit upon a shared struggle we all were engaged in—the fight to bring thoughtful design to the new digital medium.

From all of this, we wrote our mission statement:

Boxes and Arrows is the definitive source for the complex task of bringing architecture and design to the digital landscape. There are various titles and professions associated with this undertaking—information architecture, information design, interaction design, interface design—but when we looked at the work that we were actually doing, we found a “community of practice” with similarities in outlook and approach that far outweighed our differences.

Boxes and Arrows is a peer-written journal dedicated to discussing, improving and promoting the work of this community, through the sharing of exemplary technique, innovation and informed opinion.

Boxes and Arrows strives to provoke thinking among our peers, to push the limits of the accepted boundaries of these practices and to challenge the status quo by teaching new or better techniques that translate into results for our companies, our clients and our comrades.

I’m not sure what I can tell you beyond that mission statement.

It’s time for the web (and software, and portable apps) to grow up.
It’s time for us to come to terms with our terms.
It’s time to discover our best practices, our most effective techniques and tools.
It’s time to learn from others in the field and stop navel gazing.

And we need a place to do that.

It is my very great hope that Boxes and Arrows can be that place. A place for designers—who think design is more than pretty font colors—to exchange ideas. A place for programmers—who realize the elegance of code means nothing if people can’t use your application—to learn to make their interface just as elegant. A place for marketers—who know that click-throughs are no good if people click away a second later—to sort out what really creates brand loyalty. A place for information architects, interaction designers, information designers and interface designers to come together with the UXs and EDs and HCIs and build a discipline that will make a difference.

This is a place free of jargon.

We aren’t messing around here: we want answers. That means we won’t hide our ignorance behind terminology. If we know it, we’ll say it. If we don’t get it, we hope you folks will use the comment feature to straighten us out, or better yet, submit an article or case study of your own. This is our journal—yours and ours, audience and authors and staff together. We’re tearing down the fences we so hastily built between our crafts, and we hope to build something better.

I hope this ’zine will make us all a bit smarter when we are through. And that is bigger than any tagline, bigger than our semantic antics, bigger than the politics and cross-company infighting.

It’s ambitious, I know.

Welcome to Boxes and Arrows…

Christina Wodtke
Publisher, Producer and Fool
Boxes and Arrows
“architecting the damn thing”