Not Dead Yet

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When Boxes and Arrows was founded a little over ten years ago, there was nothing quite like it online. There were peer-reviewed journals, and basic how-to articles. A List Apart was much more concerned with the CSS behind the interface back then, and UX Matters, Johnny Holland and Smashing Magazine were not even a twinkle in their creators’ eyes. So a bunch of scrappy volunteers gathered together and pushed to get the stories we wanted to read online. We were struggling to figure things out in our day jobs, and we created a place where we could learn from each other. Boxes and Arrows did much better than we could ever have imagined, surviving transitions over four chief editors, thirty-nine editors, and today it holds four-hundred-and-forty-one articles written by three-hundred-and-nine members of the community at large.

But it was always a volunteer organization. It lost money for the first five years of its life, and for the next five barely paid for hosting and conference coverage. This allowed us to podcast the IA Summit for the first time, and paid to have those podcasts transcribed. Jesse James Garrett’s incendiary talk on User Experience is captured because of the passion of those volunteers, and the kind sponsors who made it possible. Our history is written because of the amazing volunteers of Boxes and Arrows. Wireframes were defined and debunked here, Design Patterns explained and complained about, career advice given out and career transitions documented. Boxes and Arrows was the best of us, and we like to think it inspired our many peers who now make it so easy to share inspiration and knowledge.

But as often happens with volunteer efforts, the volunteers’ lives changed. Some people left the field, some people took on jobs that required long hours, and some people made babies. Some people did all three. The people who used to have spare time, didn’t.  They didn’t even have time to notice what was happening. And through spam and neglect, the magazine started to wither. And the torch didn’t get passed. And lacking oxygen, it started to flicker. And now, some say, the light is gone.

But rather than dead, let’s say it is sleeping. Boxes and Arrows is old for an online magazine, and with age comes some advantages. One is SEO: with no new article published, it still gets 5-7K pageviews a day. A bad day for Boxes and Arrows is ten times most blogs’ best day. Which means Boxes and Arrows is still a site with reach. It means it is still a place where a voice, having something important to say, can be amplified. That voice could be yours.

And so, facing retirement or resurrection, we’d like to ask you, reader, what should be the fate of Boxes and Arrows? Is there a new generation of designers out there who wants to take the power of this magazine’s reach and use it to talk about the next generation of user experience design? Will you define it? Will you defend it? Will you debunk it?

If you would like to take over Boxes and Arrows, speak up. We have moved it to a new platform. We have reached out to new writers. We have breathed a little oxygen on to that torch, and the flame begins to catch. We’d like to pass it to you.

If you would like to to volunteer to create the next Boxes and Arrows, please leave a note below. Say what you would like to do, and this magazine is yours.


As it always was.

As it should be.

Addendum: So grateful for the outpouring of support!  Please join this mailing list where the next generation of B&A begins to plan for the future…


Whither “User Experience Design”?

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Like a lot of folks, I find the term “user experience design” awkward and unsatisfying, at once vague and grandiose, and not accurately descriptive of what I do. Too often it seems like a term untethered, in search of something — anything — we might use it to name. And yet I often call myself a UX designer, and have done for the last few years, because at the moment it seems to communicate what I do more effectively to more people than any other term I can find.

Obviously I don’t stand alone in finding the term useful, or at least useful enough. Yet we find ourselves endlessly discussing this and and other terms for what we do … trying to describe what we do … disagreeing vigorously … and at the same time complaining about getting mired in an argument about semantics. Can’t we just get on with the work?

I don’t think we can. We cannot get past this argument about language just yet because I don’t think we really have an argument about language. We have an argument about what we do, a genuine and profound disagreement.

Looking at where the term “user experience design” comes from, and how we actually use it, I have a proposal for what we can take it to mean: design which includes interaction design but is not only interaction design.

People who think of interaction design as just one among many UX specialties may consider that a surprising overextension of that specialty’s relevance; I hope to show why it makes sense.

Trouble with the definition, not the word

I don’t much care which words we ultimately choose. Yes, it would help to use language which no one could mistake or confuse, but we cannot seem to find that and don’t strictly need it anyway. Consider the ugliness and inappropriateness of the term “industrial design.” We understand it not because it suits what industrial designers do, but because we already understand what industrial designers do and can attach the name to that generally understood meaning.

In “user experience design,” we don’t have that. We lack a clear meaning to which we can attach the term. Until we find one, the grumbling over names will continue.

Grandiose UXD

Some people like the grand implications of the term “user experience design.” They include anything where one plans what experience people will have, including not just websites but interior decoration and customer service scripts and theme park rides and kitchen knives.

I feel uncomfortable with the language of “user experience design” because I don’t think we need a name to describe all of those things. At that point, why not just “design”?

Looking back at how we came to talk about UXD in the first place, that large world of design problems didn’t give rise to talk of “user experience design.” The web did.

The web gave us UXD

The term “user experience design” came as a response to the shock wave created by the emergence of the web. For most people in the field, “user experience design” means, in practice, “design for the web … and other stuff like it.” So what is the web like?

Some people with a background in graphic design tend to think of web design as visual design plus a bunch of other Design Stuff. For a long time, a lot of web designers made a binary distinction between visual design and information architecture, effectively defining IA as “all the Design Stuff for the web which isn’t visual design.” These days, most define IA more crisply than that, distinguishing between information architecture as the organization of content and “interaction design” as … well … that gets a little tricky.

For some web designers, I suspect “interaction design” represents the frontier of web design as IA once did; having accounted for visual design and information architecture, “interaction design” means, in practice, the design on the web which ain’t either of those. Others have a more specific conception of what constitutes “interaction design.”

Interaction design

Over in the software development universe, people have long discussed “usability engineering” and “human factors” and “user interface design” and a host of other names for the same essential work. All of those terms have their problems: philosophical, rhetorical, political. You can locate me in the era and tradition I spring from by knowing that, in circles where I can expect people will understand me, I still prefer to call myself an interaction designer rather than a UX designer because I consider it a more usefully precise term.

When one encounters a computer, or a device, or any other system which has software in it, one enters into a dialogue with that system, a cycle of action and reaction. This includes both cycles of action between individuals and the system itself, and also cycles between different people as mediated by the system. Inter-action: action between people and systems, action between people and people. Systems containing software involve categorically more complex interactions than anything else we make, which gives those systems a unique character that calls for a distinct design discipline. Hence “interaction design.”

Back in the late ’90s the term “interaction design” got tangled up rhetorically because traditional advertising and design agencies used the term “interactive media” to describe the brochure-ware they made for the web.

More recently, many people have taken “interaction design” to mean only the pick-and-shovel work of wireframing and specifying workflows, not the fundamental product or service definition which lies behind the specific interaction behaviors.

Once upon a time I wanted “interaction design” to become the term which included all of this work defining new interactive systems. Things didn’t go that way.

Disciplinary distinctions

Interaction design. Information architecture. Visual design. Information design. Social interaction design. Service design. We have people who find these disciplinary distinctions very useful, believing that they represent well-defined types of work with reasonably well-developed methods. We have people who see talking too much about these distinctions as territorialism and semantic games that get in the way of just doing the work. Some among those have a deep skepticism that these distinctions mean much at all: compared to the classical disciplines of graphic design, industrial design, et cetera, we do not — and perhaps can not — have well-established methodologies for the new problems which designers face today. They talk in terms of a kind of open-ended design sensibility and developing an eclectic toolkit of specific techniques.

We should not minimize the differences between these philosophies. When we do, the disagreement displaces itself into discussions of language. Rather than ask what “user experience design” really means — a question with no answer — we should ask instead what problem we use it to talk about.

“User experience design” creates an uneasy truce

The term “experience design,” originally proposed by people who rejected disciplinary distinctions, has acted to paper over the disagreement.

These early advocates saw “experience design” as a way to name a new era in which the old disciplinary distinctions between design problems had broken down and become less relevant. They talked excitedly about UX design in its grandiose sense.

Then Jesse James Garrett drew his famous diagram of “The Elements of User Experience,” name-checking several different classes of design problems and suggesting a way of looking at their relationships, writing “user experience” in large letters on the diagram as a name for the whole. People who valued disciplinary distinctions could look at the diagram and see them represented there. People who wanted to transcend disciplines could look at the diagram and see the implication that each lived as part of a greater whole, incomplete on its own. So that diagram exemplified conversations which brokered an implicit truce under the banner of “user experience design.”

But we still need to understand and talk about This Thing That We Do, and we still do not agree about it. If UXD means “Designing Stuff like the web” we have to ask what we mean by “like the web.”

Interactive systems, not just the web

The 800-pound gorilla that is the web confuses our thinking. Web-ness per se did not produce the need which gave birth to the term “user experience design.” It didn’t come from people making simple websites with static pages, it came from people making web applications. And now we see it adopted by people making desktop software and mobile apps and more. What do those have in common? The network? Static websites involved the network … and we also see people talking about UX design for stand-alone desktop computer applications. So no, the network does not unify these UXD domains.

Software ties these things together. The Thing The Web Is Like is software, and in fact that statement says it backward. Better to say many things derive their nature from software, for example the web. What makes software special? What makes it different from the artifacts created with industrial design? From the images created with graphic design? From websites of static pages?


More than just interaction design

One might call this focus on interactivity chauvinism on my part, since I come from interaction design.

Let me underline that I do not claim that interaction design constitutes the most important component of all UXD. Let us recognize service design and information architecture and visual design and social interaction design and all the other specific design disciplines we employ in solving UX design problems. Indeed, let us notice that in many cases other design disciplines outweigh the importance of interaction design in solving a UXD problem.

One may have a big retailer’s website and mainly need information architecture to organize the vast set of pages and visual design to make the pages appealing and aligned with the brand, with just a little bit of interaction design for the search and purchasing tools. One may have a member service process for an HMO which involves sophisticated service design and classical graphic design for communicating to members and just a little bit of interaction design for things like appointment setting tools.

I don’t want to make interaction design dominant over UX design but I do want to name it as essential to UX design. The presence of interaction design usefully defines “user experience design.” The term “user experience design” did not emerge from an encounter with the need for service design, information architecture, visual design, social interaction design, or any of the other problems we talk about in the UX design world. It emerged from the encounter with complex software behaviors and the interaction design challenges they present.

It makes no sense to ask what “user experience design” really means; it means whatever we use it to mean. We can ask what we need it to mean and how we already use it. I submit that we need a term for “designing systems that include interaction design”. And we already use “user experience design” to mean that now.

If we could agree on that, I might stop feeling so bad about calling myself a “user experience designer”.

Das Design Revolution

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Experience design comrades, I speak to you today because I have a vision. A vision where one day the person who really matters is back at the heart of our design processes. Rightfully claiming pride of place at the centre of all decisions regarding our websites, interfaces and systems. I am talking, of course, of the Designer, or more specifically, the Designer’s Portfolio.

For too long have we pandered to the user-centered orthodoxy at the expense of beautiful 1,200px wide images crafted for CSS gallery websites. How can we be expected to turn a small corner into a 400x300px snapshot that looks good on whilst having to worry about user personas? How can we expect to accept our gorgeous, beveled navigation system if we have to spend time considering things like reassurance, orientation or SEO?

We are forced by project teams to worry incessantly about requirements: the user’s, the business’s or even, heaven forbid, the client’s. Our KPIs continually push us to sacrifice our design flourishes at the alter of ‘simplicity’ or even ‘usability’, whilst paying no heed to fulfilling our fundamental needs as frustrated Fine Artists or Filmmakers.

So in response to this I propose a new way of thinking about our practice. A revolution if you will. Set your iPhone lamp to ‘on’ and let it illuminate the darkness of agile prototyping methodology toward a shining new revelation:

h3. Portfolio-Centered Design

“I’m with you!” you tweet, “but how can we blindly follow you with no manifesto?”. Fear not; using my own process I have carefully crafted a ten-point system (because ‘ten-point’ always sounds best, regardless of how many cogent points I can actually come up with) for a designer to keep in mind. Consider these a checklist that will help you achieve the pinnacle of a shining portfolio, and get that all important job in an interactive marketing agency, turning above-the-line advertising into social media campaigns.

1. First and foremost, context is nothing

For a designer to have to think about a portfolio that is anything more than a series of images accessed by menus of thumbnails is absurd and not worthy of consideration. After all, if it’s good enough for art galleries then why not for us? We have to remember that our designs are essentially a series of pictures: to be looked at, commented on and copied in a suitably reverential setting.

Only this way can they truly ‘breathe’ as we want them to. Only then can we see their true aura, stripped of superfluous information, context or brief. Only then can they be evaluated without reference to requirements or KPIs, changing digital landscapes or touchscreen shapes and sizes.

2. Don’t pay too much attention to testing

How can users meaningfully assess your designs? They might have no prior knowledge of the system. Surely the best-placed person to decide if a series of pages works is the person who designed them. It’s obvious that only they really know what each item means and are best placed to understand the design decisions behind it.

Too often do I hear designers overruled with questions about users’ comprehension. Too often have I heard arguments citing Cognitive Psychology. Too often have principles of human behaviour and capabilities trumped good, solid layout decisions.

If the designer has seen the problem solved by their favourite app on their iPhone, which was approved by Apple, then it must be the best process and the users will eventually just learn how to use the system.

3. You can never arrive at a solution too quickly

If you can re-write a brief with as many solutions upfront as possible, this will significantly cut down on research, iterations, and those frustrating workshops with the wider team, clients or users. You are not a business consultant and this approach will free you up for the important jobs, like deciding which Smashing Magazine social icon set best reflects current design trends.

This also allows you to fill the gaps in your portfolio. Missing an AJAX carousel? Seen a good example of one? Simply set up the brief so the project needs a carousel (there has to be an explanation for them existing).

Finally, that portfolio needs a current, on-trend solution? Simply find yourself one (preferably popularised by industry gurus) and retro-fit the project requirements later. You can have these two for nothing: embedded fonts or responsive design (will work for about another six months or so).

4. Content is not your job

We cannot be expected to be storytellers; it is not our job to guide people through our sites. This is the job of the content strategist or copywriter and can be done right at the end. Taxonomy, nomenclature and so on, these are simply not as important as getting the colour pallet nailed.

There is a great tradition of using dummy Latin text in advertising. So why not stick to it? It makes us look like our fledgling field has roots in an older and more accepted field like advertising layout.

5. Considerations of technology – somebody else’s job

Do not collaborate with programmers. Keep as far away as possible, do not let them stifle creativity. Only the ‘Creative’ team is really qualified to come up with UX solutions; they’re the ones who went to Art College after all. Maintain a good ‘over-the-fence’ relationship with the technical or engineering team, and none of their prototyping or agile methodology will get in the way of your blue-sky design thinking. This leads us neatly to –

6. Collaboration, not exactly a dirty word, but a bit icky

Again, advertising can be our paradigm here. Silos keep things simple. Strategy is best left to the strategy team, user research and engagement to the IA team, and so on. Demand polished wireframes (think ‘scamps’) to colour in.

Client management? You know where the account team is. Keep your engagement to carefully planned walkthroughs, making sure the number of solutions to be presented is pre-arranged so there are no surprises. If in doubt, just remember headphones can be a designer’s best friend.

7. Accessibility works best as an afterthought

This is what the principle of ‘degrade gracefully’ was invented for. Always design for the highest spec users. This allows you total creative freedom, unencumbered by limitations of contrast, plug-ins, browsers, user’s disabilities and so forth. It is self-evident that only this can produce the most creative design solutions.

Then simply allow the site to ‘degrade gracefully’ and everyone who doesn’t sign up to your setup can simply enjoy an experience more suited to their system, or their personal limitations.

8. Photoshop: let that be where responsibility ends

If you can fill your folio with the initial designs, it ultimately doesn’t matter to you how it turned out in the browser, or whether KPIs were achieved. Sticking to your goal of beautiful pictures above all else allows you to keep your involvement ring-fenced to the early phase of the project and avoid the difficult responsibilities later on.

This keeps you free to make sure you always have your ear to the ground for the next portfolio-worthy project to work-up in Photoshop and get onto your site.

9. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

Don’t be afraid of filler content to fit a nice pre-existing pattern. As I said ‘ten-point plan’ sounds better than ‘nine-point plan’. Whether the site experience works as a flow over multiple pages is not evident from portfolio grabs, so don’t worry, you are safe.

10. Don’t throw your net too wide

You’re crafting visual designs, so restrict your influences to that field. You can’t be expected to have time to absorb other mediums, have other interests or think about how they could relate to the problems we are trying to solve.

Your influences should come from within digital and possibly graphic design. What can film or games design teach you? Architecture is about buildings not websites. They are fundamentally different disciplines and will only confuse the design purity. Remember: “if it’s not Swiss, give it a miss.”

Keep all these in mind, and that award-winning portfolio could be yours!

Just don’t send it to me, that’s all I ask.

IA Summit 10 – Whitney Hess Keynote

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IA Summit 2010

This year marks the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit. Our theme is meant to inspire everyone in the community—even those who aren’t presenting or volunteering—to bring their best ideas to the table.

As busy practitioners, we rarely have the chance to step back and think about the future of our field—we’re too busy resolving day-to-day issues. By gathering and sharing practical solutions for everyday challenges, we can create more breathing room to plan for what’s to come.

Subscribe to the Boxes and Arrows Podcast in iTunes or add this page to your account:

iTunes     2010 IA Summit theme music generously provided by Bumper Tunes


| “Day 1 – Dan Roam“: | “Day 2 – Richard Saul Wurman“: | Day 3 – Whitney Hess |

Full Program

| Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 |

In her keynote closing the 2010 IA Summit, Whitney asks if our work is just our job or our passion. To really make the difference we seek, our practice needs to be our calling. The UX community is united because of a common mission:

We empower people to become self-reliant and more resourceful, organized, social, and relaxed. We don’t do it for them, they do it for themselves.

Most designers don’t make the things that people use; we’re ideas people. We’re nothing without the visual designers, developers, copywriters, and business managers with whom we work. It’s time we focus our energy outside the UX tribe, to these people that bring our ideas to fruition.

Ms. Hess implores us to stop feeling so disenfranchised and misunderstood, to stop isolating ourselves and strive for the influence to bring about the change that drives us to do what we do. Defending “perfection” will defeat us; instead, she calls us to have the audacity to fail spectacularly and then move upward from those moments.

In the end, she asks us to consider our legacy. Do we want to be a footnote in a technology textbook, or do we want to “cross the chasm” and embody the change that we talk about amongst ourselves.

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The IA Summit: the premier gathering place for information architects and other user experience professionals.

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Boxes & Arrows: 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.

Transcript of Whitney Hess Closing Plenary Address of the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, Arizona.

Announcer: In the closing plenary of the 2010 IA Summit, Whitney Hess discusses her experiences within the IA community, and calls for greater inclusion, leadership, and the necessity to embrace failure as a fundamental aspect of our discipline’s growth, without which we cannot get a seat at the board room table.
I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers.
Whitney Hess: Before I jump in, I just want to take a moment to thank all of you, to thank each and every one of you, for being here in this room right now. I know there are a lot of other places that you could have been. I know that you could have booked your flight to leave already, and so it means a great deal to me that you’re here right now and allowing me to speak to you. So thank you.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The truth about me, just me, and all of my vulnerability. That might be what Jennifer was talking about a little bit.
I’m amazed at the position that I find myself in today. I know I’ve said this to you, each of you individually, perhaps, or you may have seen me write about this. Standing in front of you here today is quite frankly, incomprehensible to me. It’s a complete out of body experience. It doesn’t even feel like I’m living it.
When Jennifer Bombach and Livia Labate contacted me and they invited me to give this closing plenary, I just sat down on my couch and I cried, and that’s the honest truth. I just cried.
So for those of you who don’t know me, last year’s IA Summit was my first ever public presentation. Sure, I had given presentations to clients and colleagues and whatnot, and shown my deliverables in presentation form, but I’d never stood on a stage by myself until a year ago right now.
The year before that, the IA Summit in 2008 was my first ever summit. So you can get a better picture, maybe, knowing this, of why this moment is just so insane for me. These are the past few IA Summit closing plenaries. What the fuck?
I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the people who have held this position prior to me have been considerably further along in their careers and have contributed far more to this community than I have so far.
So, for the folks who have an issue with me standing up here today, I don’t need you to tell me how green I am, okay? I’m 27 years old. I graduated from school a little over five years ago. I became self‑employed a little over a year and a half ago. So, yeah, I’m not nearly as experienced as pretty much everyone else in this audience. I’m probably not as smart as you, either. But I’m standing here, so move on with your life.
[Laughter, cheering]
Thank you.
Synchronicity brought me here and I am not unclear enough that I don’t realize this. I didn’t plan this. I didn’t even particularly want this for myself in my career. But a remarkable series of events has landed me in this position. Some of it with luck, some of it was just my personality, some of it was timing being in the right place at the right time. I realized all of those things but that is life and you never know what is going to happen so here I am.
I’ve been on this incredible journey. There’s a huge gap between who I am and who I want to be and the journey between those two points is what I consider to be my pursuit of happiness. Two and a half years ago, I identified something in myself that I didn’t like. I was closed off and my inner introvert was preventing me from living to the fullest. And I could already tell even a few years out of school that it was going to negatively effect my career. So, I reached out to this community slowly but surely and my life changed forever.
The price of sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care. I made this conscious decision to no longer be a sheep, but I never expected that the alternative would mean being a wolf. I have felt lonely at times. I am not going to lie. I’ve gotten attention that I wasn’t really comfortable with. And it made me feel different than I had felt in my life previously. But it may have felt lonely, but I have never felt alone.
Every wolf has her pack and this is mine, the tribe, our tribe. Look around you. You are not alone. You will not find another profession in which the community of practitioners is disconnected, is this loving, is this dedicated to each other’s success and happiness. We are truly each other’s kindred spirits. There are very few egos in this community and I discovered that two years ago, I was at the interaction conference formed by AXTA in 2008. It was their first conference in Savannah.
I had booked my ticket to leave a little late so the conference would’ve ended and I was hungry and I decided to send out a tweet to see if anyone would grab a dinner. And I got a response from someone named @mediajunkie. Now, I had kind of met him at the conference but I didn’t entirely know who he was and in his reply, he said that he and @cb were going to take a walk and grab some dinner and I was more than welcome to join them.
So I said yes and then I went on Google to figure out who these people were because I felt so new and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. And so I discovered that @mediajunkie was Christian Crumlish who is the curator of the Yahoo design pattern library. And @cb is Chris Baum, the editor‑in‑chief of Boxes and Arrows. So, after I crapped myself and then pulled myself together, I was like, “Okay, I guess this is it. I am going to go out and have dinner with this people.” We took a walk around Savannah.
They asked me about me. They asked me what it was like to be involved with the community for the first time. They asked me some opinions about being a younger practitioner and things that I see in the community or things that I don’t see in the community because of that and the rest is history. They were so warm and treated me with such equality that I never expected, that it really had a profound impact on me.
Chris Baum’s not in the room today. Christian Crumlish is, and I’m sorry to single you out. I have a lot of stories that are very similar with a lot of people in this room, and I just felt like that was the beginning, and I really owed it to them to tell you all publicly.
So people have asked how I have gotten here in such a short period of time. The only answer I have is this. This is a community of giants and I have felt like I have stood on all of your shoulders, and I’m eternally grateful for that. So I have to ask, “Who’s your mentor, and who calls you their mentor?”
I grew up feeling like I didn’t really have a lot of role models. I was kind of a loner. I was very self‑reliant. I didn’t exactly respect my elders. Now I find myself surrounded by a bunch of inspirational people, and I’m lucky to call many of them my mentors.
But what’s forced me to grow even more has been through sharing my experience and by mentoring others and giving my time to other people’s growth.
It’s very rewarding and it’s very humbling, and I feel that it’s being on both ends of the equation, having the mentor and being the mentor that has given me this incredible sense of belonging.
The prolific Peter Drucker wrote, “Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person, hard‑working and competent but otherwise mediocre, into an outstanding performer.” Because of this tribe, my life has become outstanding.
Everything that I do, and all of my motivations are from a single point, and that is love. Because it’s all about love, and love is the differentiator, and love is everything, and love is why I’m here right now.
This is my mantra that I live by. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. It was written by a man named Steve Farber in his book, “The Radical Leap.” And when I saw it on the page, it leaped up at me and I realized that this is me. This is how I want to live my life.
Everything that I do springs from love or I don’t do it, quite frankly. I serve a higher purpose than myself. It’s about affecting other people’s lives, and ensuring their appreciation, and getting that feedback, and making sure that it’s a cyclical process, and that’s why this statement means so much to me.
So I have to ask you. Let’s be honest. Is this your job, or is it your passion? Are you passionately driven to make a difference here? Is that why you’re here? Why do you care, and why are you here in the first place? There are so many other places you can be, and there are so many other professions that you can have. Why this one?
There’s work, and then there’s life’s work. I think what we do is pretty hard to call work. I think our passion is so deep and so persistent that it’s much more accurately classified as “life’s work” because frankly, this isn’t a job. It’s a life calling. I’m not doing this to please my parents or to follow in their footsteps. I’d be pretty surprised if any of you had parents that did this, and that’s why you got in the profession in the first place.
I’m not doing this to become rich, though that would be nice. I do this because I have this unwavering internal impulse that this is what I meant to be doing for a living. And it is not a living, it is life. This is what I meant to be doing. And yet, for many of us, the job description doesn’t begin to describe what we do or what you can do.
So, everything that you can do and what your job description says. We all have different job titles and different responsibilities but we are united for a single reason. And that is what I consider our common mission. Now, I’ve struggled with how to communicate this. It may not feel right at first but hear me out. I believe that our common mission is that we help people and has their own lives. And I chose this language very carefully. Thank you. Thank you.
We empower people to become self‑reliant, to become more resourceful, more social, more informed, more organized, more successful, more relaxed. But we don’t do it for them. They do it for themselves. We design systems that allow people to make those choices and make those changes in their life. Let us be honest. Our work isn’t that momentous. We believe in the power of the butterfly effect. That if we make small changes, that they will have enormous impact.
We need that to operate in order for us to be successful. We dream of causing this wide‑ranging positive change. I know that we all do but really, it’s because of something so much deeper and that’s we want to change the world. And I really, really believe that everyone of you is here because you want to be part of something that is bigger than yourself. You want to change the world and maybe not the world but your world whatever it is that you defined it as. I defined it as something different than you may… Each of us may define it differently but it’s about having that really wide impact.
Not just on the users that we advocate for but on a much greater purpose. It is not just about creating more usable, useful desire of products. That might be your tag line. We like to communicate that but it really is something much bigger and I think that many of you know that there is something bigger here. So, there is this line in Sister Act two that just popped into my head. If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.
And I think we do have to wake up. We can’t possibly have the lights matter of fact that we dream of if we’re only relying on the other members of our tribe. The world isn’t just going to change for us because we think it should. We are going to become increasingly disappointed with our progress if we just keep doing all of these back slapping that we’ve become so accustomed to. Now, I don’t mean that as negatively as it comes across because I think that the bond that exists in this community is unparalleled. And it is important that we support each other.
But there is something much bigger going on. And I think we are missing the big picture. So, the wakeup call, real world is calling, time to pick up. It is not about you or us especially not about us. We are not the most important part of the equation here. We design systems that enable people to have more successful behaviors, but we do not make them. We do not make them. That is the dirty truth. We are not creators. We’re influencers. We don’t actually make anything. Hugh McLeod said, “Like so many brilliant people, we believe that ideas move mountains. But bulldozers move mountains. Ideas show where bulldozers should go.”
We’re ideas people, and we’re nothing, nothing without the visual designers, developers, copy writers and business managers that we work with.
They’re the makers. They’re the ones who bring our ideas to fruition. Their creations are ultimately what our users use, not our creations. They’re not ours. And we’re really doing a really shitty job of showing them that we understand that.
So here’s my plea. I think it’s time that we need to need to focus our energy outside of the UX tribe to become recognized leaders to makers and management. We really need to grow up and stop feeling so disenfranchised and misunderstood, and recognize that the real role that we play in all of this. We need to reach out to the greater tech and business communities far more than we have been, and we have really completely isolated ourselves, and it’s time that we stopped doing that.
So what we have is influence. What we have is influence, and we need to figure out how to gain that influence over our companies, our colleagues, our clients and the larger communities that we work within. But this the hard part, and we don’t have a choice. If we want this profession to exist in the next ten years, we’re going to have to get used to doing some seriously hard work. Winston Churchill said that the price of greatness is responsibility, and I think we’ve been shirking our responsibility in a lot of ways. We’ve been shirking the responsibility that it takes to change the world.
We are exasperated by the lack of understanding and common sense of the people that we work with, the way our users are mistreated, and we are so focused on fixing these immediate problems that we recognize that we neglect the bigger picture. And we’re all responsible for that. That’s how I see us.
And I say “us” because I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else.
So what’s holding us back? What is holding us back?
This is the 11th year of the IA Summit, and I’d venture to guess that the folks who were here on year one, they thought we’d be much further along by now.
So what’s holding us back? I have a few ideas.
Firstly, I think we heroize the tools. And this is something that I was actually surprised to hear coming up in a lot of sessions this weekend. I wrote this beforehand, and I didn’t realize that it was something that a lot of people were feeling.
Omnigraffle. Axure. Post‑It notes. White boards, and card sorting, and Ensel models, and we use all these tools, and I use them too.
I rely on them just as much as everyone else does, but we spend so much energy promoting the tools, and so much energy promoting our use of them that we neglect to feature the people that are using them, and that’s us.
A fancy tool is just a pillar to hide behind and putting the focus on the tool acting like they are these magic items that allow us to do our job. It gives the tool more power than you. The tool doesn’t have the power. It is what you do with it. It is the understanding that you create by using it, it is your thinking not the tools capability.
Doctors don’t give this kind of praise to their stethoscopes so why are we spending so much time talking about the things that we use to do our work? Secondly, I think we limit ourselves. A good friend told me don’t judge yourself, the world will do that for you. And it’s really hard for me to internalize but it’s true. Sure, most of us don’t have MBAs, most of us don’t have MFAs, most of us don’t have any formal education in this at all. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to have a sit at the war room table.
We accommodate out of guilt. We attack out of anger and we avoid out of fear.
When we present our work, we are in absolute mess. Either we let our teams roll right over us or we slip out when they don’t understand our logic and our thought process so worst of all, we completely avoid true collaboration because we are afraid of people taking away the little power that we have. I also think we are afraid to be wrong. I think somehow we got into our heads that we always have to have the right answer and maybe because we convinced our designers and or developers that they need our help and that is where this comes from.
And we feel that with every wrong answer, our future hangs in the balance and that is simply not true. You screw up every day and everyone already knows it. But do you admit it? We are human and we are wrong all the time. Everyone is but most of us don’t own up to it. I mean how often really do you proclaim your fuck ups? I mean something that Jerry was just talking about. Do you celebrate them? Probably not. I know I don’t. So, I think it’s time that we celebrate fear.
Fear is good. Fear is great. Fear is growth. Fear means you are doing something right. If we aren’t tackling the things that scare us the most, then we aren’t striking ourselves enough. Love hurts. We are in love with what we do and we have this calling. Aren’t we lucky? But no one said it would be easy. So, if you are finding it easy, you probably aren’t doing enough. Love hurts. It’s suppose to hurt because it matters. And that’s the honest truth.
So, living pursuit of the OSM. That is “Oh Shit Moment.” This also comes from the C Fiber book that have a big impact on me called: “The Radical Leap”. Seek out the experiences that will really make you scream, “Oh, shit!” It gives you be visceral like when you take that glass elevator of the hotel from the top floor down to the lobby and it drops and you feel your stomach go, that’s the feeling that you should get. It should have magnitude and there should be a high likelihood that you’ll fail. And when you do fail, fail magnificently.
Fail big. Like really fucked up. Okay? Because only then that you are going to know that you are living. The bigger the ocean moment, the bigger the failure but at least you’ll know that you are taking your responsibility seriously. Not doing it when you know full well you had the opportunity that hurts far more than any failure and I think a lot of you can relate when I say that my biggest regrets in life are not the things that I did but the things that I didn’t do.
The intersection of failure, thinking and determination: a success layer. Who doesn’t believe that’s true? You can’t succeed without failure, and we’re a lucky bunch, because we have oodles of determination and oodles of brainpower.
Perfection doesn’t equal credibility. I think a lot of us get stuck up in this mindset that it does, and it’s just not true. It’s critical that we believe this. It’s critical that we believe that perfection doesn’t equal credibility. The more perfect you try to appear to your teams, the less they’re going to trust you.
Right now, this is my biggest “Oh, shit!” moment. The last few months have been absolute Hell for me.


I’ve probably given myself an ulcer, and I’ve definitely driven my boyfriend crazy. But my sense of responsibility to do this, to our shared mission, far outweighed my personal fear. That’s why I’m here.
I think another thing we really need to do is promote and include. Some people protect themselves from fear by surrounding themselves in an exclusive world. The less they have to share themselves, the less they risk. We keep trying to convince ourselves that we’re special. But, if we keep this tribe so isolated, we’re going to lose.
Recognize the destructive impact of your words in dealing with others, especially your colleagues, the makers and the builders that lift us up, who bring our ideas to fruition. Beware of the language that you use in imparting your criticisms.
Yes, they may have created something that’s hard to use, or that isn’t useful for your specific users, or is just plain weird. They’re not necessarily going to have the right answers, either. But instead of feeling the need to prove them wrong, teach them how to be right.
If you try to dominate people, you’re already defeated. We like to think of ourselves as saviors. I think we have the sense that we’re this organized and very committed group of people, and very headstrong, certainly. But we don’t always have to prove our value. We’ve been undervalued for so long that I think we’ve got this chip on our shoulder, and it’s really time to put that to bed.
We need to be assertive without being aggressive, and there’s a big difference between the two. Being assertive shows confidence. Being aggressive shows insecurity. So, be aware of not just what you say, but how you say it.
This is one of my favorite quotes by Peter Drucker, who wrote many tomes on leadership and management: “Your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance.”
What that means to me is, that by thinking we’re the most important piece of the puzzle, and by failing to gain knowledge in other areas, like programming or visual design or business management, we’re just further isolating ourselves. If we want them to better understand us, we need to do a lot more to better understand them. Because all human beings have the basic need to be recognized.
We shouldn’t think of ourselves as saviors with all the answers. We need to be better facilitators, and ultimately, leaders. We need to lead. Now, this leadership stuff is tricky. It’s very amorphous. I realize that, and I can’t tell you all to go out and be leaders, and suddenly the user‑experience field gains recognition and standing in the business world. I know that.
But I can only tell you what leadership means to me and hopefully that sparks something in you. Firstly, it means having Chutzpah. For those of you don’t know what Chutzpah means, it is essentially audacity. It means being able to walk into the room and say exactly what needs to be said. No letting fear hold you back.
We need to have the courage of our convictions and knock back down when we get pushed showing our coffins through the consistent behavior, not wavering. We need to have adaptability. We need to be able to roll at the punches and try new things and adapt to the circumstances and the people that we are surrounded by. Not having a fear of newness. And when all those fails, we have to act as if…Don’t expose the people that you need to be leading to your insecurities and your worry.
Act like the leader that you want to be and suddenly you will become it. Ultimately, the true mark of a leader is someone who inspires others to lead and that is what we need the most. Your Chutzpah, your conviction, your adaptability will become contagious and that’s when real changes going to happen. So, our legacy… It concerns me greatly. So, some say they have twenty years experience when all they really have is one year experience repeated twenty times and all that age. Each of us has to force ourselves to move beyond the supportive tribe that we found ourselves in.
To become business leaders ‑‑ in the face of fear, lead the people that we work with, the people that we collaborate with in order to achieve our common mission. We keep focusing on our site maps and our wire frames and our prototypes like that is all there is. Then we aren’t really advancing the profession as a whole. So, I have to ask you a tough question. Can your company succeed without you? And if the answer is no, are you proud of that? You have to ask yourself if your DNA, the shared belief system that we all hold so dear, the things that you have heard in the past weekend is that coursing through the veins of your company?
Are you just doing stuff or are you transforming stuff? So, what is our legacy? Is it outside this room? I love this room. But it is not enough for me. Let’s not be a footnote on technology textbook. I don’t want to look back thirty years from now and when a really talented, really brilliant, caring group of people almost change the face of technology forever but just couldn’t figure out how to cross the line. Our legacy rest on all of our shoulders. Thank you for listening.

Research Logistics

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With more companies today putting a stronger emphasis on gaining a deeper understanding of their customer, it’s not unusual for us to be called in for a project to find that our clients don’t have a lot of experience with research and don’t know what to expect. This article is for every designer, architect, manager, engineer, and stakeholder who wants to know more about research and is intended to provide you with the most critical tools for interacting with researchers and understanding how the work that we do can make your job easier.

This article will also outline what to expect from researchers and some ways to recognize when you’re working with a good one. These are indicators, not standards, based on what we’ve found to be effective. There are many ways to do research and every research study is different so it doesn’t mean that a researcher is incompetent if he or she doesn’t conform to these indicators. One sign of a strong researcher is that he or she will educate you throughout the process so that you know what to expect. With that in mind this article is ultimately intended to provide a useful starting point.


One of the most critical and time-consuming elements of test preparation is defining the right target audience and recruiting participants. Participant recruiting is usually conducted by professional recruiters who typically consult databases of potential participants. Sometimes researchers will do the recruiting themselves, but it’s usually more cost effective to use a specialist.

Recruiting will almost always take two weeks or more depending on the number of participants and the type of research, so make sure that you get started early enough for the recruiter to have enough time to find the appropriate participants for the study. Recruiting for phone interviews may take slightly less time and any kind of home visit will likely take longer (ethnography or contextual interview). Your researcher should be able to provide you with an estimate at the time of initial engagement.

A week for recruiting tends to be difficult and any less than that is pretty much unthinkable. Short-changing the recruiting could result in participants that don’t properly fit the target market segment, don’t provide quality feedback, or just don’t show up at all. All of these can have a negative impact on the data. Even if it is possible to get participants faster, it’s usually better to take the time to ensure that you are getting the right people. Your researcher should know all of this and recruiting participants is where he or she will start after getting a basic understanding of your product and schedule.

A recruiter will need a screener to get started. A screener is a description of the target user with open and close-ended questions about the participant that will help the recruiter to select the right people. What you can do to smooth the process along is to have a prepared concept of your target user. This does not need to be a full market research report—just an outline of the types of users that will use your product.

Your researcher should dig deep with questions that include more than demographic information by asking behavioral questions. Behavioral questions can include such topics as TV watching behavior, purchasing behavior, internet use, etc. Typically behavioral questions will give you a stronger understanding of those who are being recruited than demographics alone. These are important elements of market segmentation that are sometimes organized into profiles called personas.

Personas are useful because they create a consistent concept of the intended market segment that can guide the design process through multiple iterations. Personas can also be adjusted following deeper discovery research, such as in-depth interviews, as more information about the intended user comes to light. Within a few days, the researcher should present a screener that includes behavioral questions as well as demographics.


When creating a schedule for data collection, the researcher should know that you cannot run participants back to back. It’s generally not feasible to squeeze in 8 one-hour sessions in a single day, because of all of the activity that must occur between sessions. In an eight hour day, a researcher can perform four (maybe five) one-hour sessions but any more than that will take more time. Here are the reasons why:

One-hour sessions rarely go exactly one hour, some are shorter and quite a few will run longer. This can be due to a variety of reasons such as the product malfunctioning, the participant arriving late, or the participant providing lots of feedback. My rule of thumb is to allocate 50% of the session length as a buffer between sessions to allow for overrun, not including time needed to set up for the next session.

For sessions at an office or lab, some participants will arrive 10-20 minutes early, at which time they will need to use the restroom, sign NDAs and consent forms, and generally get comfortable. Comfortable participants give useful feedback, while uncomfortable participants tend to clam up and provide short, unemotional responses.
The researcher needs to set up and get ready. For usability or experience testing, the test will need to be reset, notes and documents need to be filed and new ones prepared. For any kind of home or location visit, the researcher will need to pack up all equipment and travel to the new location and set up equipment again.

Thus for every one-hour usability or experience testing session, there’s forty-five minutes to an hour of buffer and setup time. Home visits can take much longer.

Test Plan

A test plan should take no more than a week to develop and the researcher should give it to you for review and approval before being finalized. The test plan should specify the research and business goals associated with the project. During this period the researcher will need a significant amount of time with the product, either with a prototype or available concepts, while writing and checking the test plan. The better the researcher understands the intended final product, the more valuable the information he or she can get from the participant.

For usability or experience testing, the researcher will test the tasks with the product prior to a pilot test. He or she will need to make sure that there are no glitches, no unexpected areas under construction, and nothing giving away future tasks when performing each of the tasks with the product. With that in mind, it’s important to give the researcher a stable product or prototype and avoid drastic changes to the product prior to the test.

You should receive a well-written and organized test plan that details each research question and how it will be addressed. For usability testing this will include a list of tasks, what each task is intended to examine, approximate wording for the task (avoiding leading language), and detail on how each task will be scored or evaluated. For discovery research, it will include a list of topics to be addressed such as processes, environment and context, and expected pain points and needs.

Data Collection

When the data collection starts, it’s important to let the moderator work. During this time, the participant should feel comfortable enough to open up and provide honest feedback. In order to do this, it’s important to try to minimize observer impact during the testing session.

If you don’t have a separate place to watch the session (e.g. behind a two-way mirror or through a video feed), don’t make it obvious that you are paying close attention. Think about bringing in a laptop during the session to make it look like you’re doing other work. One way of doing this is telling the participant that you are also a researcher but you’re just going to be taking notes.

When you’re observing, remain objective and don’t make judgments based on one or two participants. It’s not uncommon to see a couple participants have a completely opposite reaction to a product compared to ten other participants. The researcher’s job is to sort through all the noise and report the real trends in the research. Take what you see with a grain of salt and listen to your researcher.

At the same time, it’s important to try to observe as many sessions as possible and give your researcher feedback between sessions if there are certain aspects of the user experience you want to know more about. The researcher should put the participant at ease and extract a great deal of information, including details that might have been overlooked or emotions that the person experiences. Different researchers will tend to achieve this in different ways as everyone has their own style, but you’ll notice by paying attention to the participant and seeing if they feel relaxed or nervous throughout testing.


Frequently, stakeholders will want to make immediate changes to a design, product, or prototype and won’t have the time to wait for the researcher’s final report. People have schedules that need to be met so it’s understandable that a project can’t always wait for the final report but the researcher should be able to provide you with quick findings within 24 hours of the last session.

For usability research, these quick findings should consist of a couple of short paragraphs including problems in the interface, possible solutions to these problems, and participants’ general reactions to the product, its look and feel, and expected usage. For ethnography or other forms of discovery research quick findings will tend to consist of expected usage of the product, expected value, high and low value features, and general trends about the intended user. Quick findings aren’t comprehensive and come before the researcher can get a complete look at the data, but it will provide you with the overall themes from the study.

When you do get the final report, make sure you take a look at it. It will tell you two things:
* Detailed findings regarding the interface, product, features, and intended user
* The quality and clarity of the report will tell you quite a bit about the quality of your researcher.

There’s one other thing to keep in mind when you are processing the findings from a usability test. The participants will tend to focus on the more obvious problems with a product or interface. There could be other, smaller or more abstract problems that are not identified in the first pass of usability testing. It’s usually a good idea to perform another test on the product after making changes to ensure that the changes you made were effective and identify any additional issues.


In summary, here are the most important points for non-researchers to know about the research process:
* Recruiting will almost always take two weeks or more.
* For every one-hour usability or experience testing session, there’s forty-five minutes to an hour of buffer and setup time, home visits can take much longer.
* The researcher will need a significant amount of time with the product (prototypes or concepts) while writing and checking the test plan.
* Try to minimize your impact during the testing session.
* Remain objective and don’t make judgments based on one or two participants.
* Ask your researcher to provide you with quick findings within 24 hours of the last session.

Any comments, feedback, or suggestions are very much appreciated.