Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Chris Fahey

Written by: Christina Wodtke

iTunes     Download    Del.icio.us     Pod-safe music generously provided by Sonic Blue

banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

In this fantastic finale, consulting powerhouse Chris Fahey of “Behavior Design”:http://www.behaviordesign.com/ talks with Christina (herself a former consultant-turned-entrepreneur) about the conditions that led to the founding of the firm. He speaks with great nuance and honesty about how the practice developed, what it means to lead the consultancy, and how the partners’ work has changed because of its success.

For those who have ever considered striking out with a few colleagues or are just curious about the path, do yourself a huge favor and listen to this podcast before you jump off that cliff.

We discuss…

*Your future…*
Chris discusses the reality of the business world today when it comes to careers. How we start to think less about how we can do well for our clients and more about how we can get involved in larger projects.

*Virtual detox*
Chris talks about how he and his four business partners created his company Behavior Design and the challenges of moving into an office after working virtually for years.

*To hire or not to hire*
Chris discusses the hiring process at Behavior Design and their good fortune in hiring staff. His biggest challenge remains whether to out source work to trusted consultants or hire staff full time. Pros and Cons to both are talked about.

*In through the out door*
Although one of the partners left the organization to take on a dream job at the NY Times as the lead designer, the culture that was developed allowed for a smooth transition for the organization and its’ people.

*Shameless Self-Promotion*
Christina describes the importance of shameless self-promotion in order to continue to advance your company. Chris describes other important aspects including knowing when to say “No!” and when to be hungry for sales.

*Come together*
Christina and Chris talk about the challenges and advantages of working with several partners when building a company.

*Summing Up*
Part of the natural growth of the company is for people to walk away to take on new challenges. As Christina points out, we’re human beings, we grow, and ultimately we’re bigger than what we do.




*TRANSCRIPT*

Male Announcer: This podcast brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City, and the Washington DC area. Help us set the standard for what happens next on the web. Send your resume to uijobs@aim.com today.

[music]

Female Announcer: Boxes And Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user-experienced design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Chris Fahey from Behavior Design.

[music]

Christina Wodtke: This is Christina Wodtke of Boxes And Arrows and we ran into Chris Fahey in the hall of Behavior Design and we thought we’d catch up with him and see what interesting things he’s up to. So Chris, what are you up to over in New York these days?

Chris Fahey: Well, Behavior Design is growing quite a bit, we just passed our fifth year mark, so I think that’s sort of the marker as to whether or not a business can survive, so that’s been great for us.

Christina: Do you wake up every morning going “not dead yet!”?

Chris: [laughing] I wake up very late sometimes, because we’re still working very late. Even after five years, we’re still putting in massive hours and still working as if we’re in our first year.

Christina: So, you know, a lot of folks on Boxes And Arrows are becoming really excited about the articles we’re running about careers, because they’re asking themselves, “Where am I going to go with my life? I’m a designer, and I could become ‘best designer in the universe,’ but maybe I should try something else, maybe I should run my own agency, maybe I should become a product manager.” Do you have some fun thoughts on what brought you here? What made you decide to run your own shop?

Chris: Actually I was just in the hallway having an interesting conversation with some other people about the very same topic actually, so it’s fresh in my mind. Someone said there was a sort of series of ingredients that go into making you a ‘superpowerful’ consultant as an individual, and that is starting a business, publishing a book, and speaking at conferences, or teaching at a university of some kind. So, these ingredients add up to escalations in your ability to make money and get premier clients.

I guess, over the years, we start to think less about how we can do good on our projects for our bosses and clients and more about, “Well, what’s going to happen to me coming up in the future? Am I going to manage people? Am I going to work on bigger and bigger projects? Am I going to work on more and more refined, focused projects?” And, you know, I’m in my mid-thirties right now and a lot of people I think in this industry – while it’s very broadly ranged – I think there are a lot of people in that kind of boat, where there’s a new generation coming but there’s people who are entering the second generation, having started in the web industry in the 90’s. We’re kind of all facing that question, you know, where do we go now?

Christina: So, as a way of thinking of the question, can you tell me what was the moment that you said, “Hey, take this job and put it in a trash bag, and let’s go start our own thing.” How did that happen?

Chris: Yeah, that was an interesting decision for us. At Behavior we started with five partners, including myself, and we all were working together at Rare Medium, which is one of the razorfish-like global consultancies that managed to…

Christina: I actually remember…

Chris: …driving to…

[laughing]

Christina: …Rare Medium, believe it or not, and March 3rd, and…

[laughing]

Christina: …Vividenson [?], Gohan [?]

Chris: Yeah… March 1st, March 3rd is my birthday, actually.

Christina: Oh, must have been in the air.

Chris: Yeah, but we were the last people to work there as they gradually went from a thousand to five hundred to fifty to three… you know, thirty people. Finally it was down to about ten people and we realized we all liked working together, we had clients that like working with us that were going to be upset when their vendor disappeared. So we continued to work with the same clients right away, working from home.

It wasn’t hard for us to decide to continue working together and to serve clients as almost like a virtual agency. What was hard was deciding to incorporate and move into an office and start delegating tasks to underlings and start to, you know, build an organization. You know we had all managed people before, but kind of we had this brief period of time where we were virtual freelancers as a virtual company. It was very awkward.

Christina: What made the decision hard?

Chris: I think it was just sort of the change of focus. It was sort of transitioning from working out of your home, to spending money on an office. I think it was financial difficulty. We grew organically. We did not have any investment. I think we all lived off of credit cards for a few months in the early stages when we had unemployment. [laughter]

Gradually I think we made enough money in our first year to be able to afford the down payment or the deposit on a space. We started with folding tables, worked our way up to buying actual doors that we could then varnish and make into real tables. Now we’re actually getting furniture built for us from friends of ours. [laughter]

I think the hard part is financial but its also just sort of cultural, understanding yourself to be not the person the client hired, but you are the embodiment of the brand that the client hired. So clients don’t necessarily get Chris Fahey 100 percent on a project. They get me leading a team, and my selection of that team. My course correction of that team. My standardization of the deliverables that we do. That’s been hard. That’s been tough to do because I really like working on stuff too.

Christina: You know, I was talking to another entrepreneur who just made his first hire and he was talking about what a terrifying moment that is. Can you talk a little bit about what it meant to change from five guys who are all kind of responsible for their own troubles to being responsible for a team of young people who you have to grow and nurture and keep your brand going.

Chris: One of the hardest parts about that was when people started sending us resumes from outside of New York. Then we have to say to them, yeah, OK you’re going to come work for us, and relocate and move all your stuff, and move your wife or your family to New York. That was a big tough decision. I think hiring other people…

Christina: And then you might have to fire them two weeks later.

Chris: Exactly, that was the tough part, was sort of feeling comfortable enough in our pipeline and our growth and our stability that we could make that kind of commitment. We’ve never made a wrong decision in that regard. We’ve hired people that weren’t great, and that sort of works out eventually.

We’re generally very, very careful about who we hire. Most of our interviews don’t, you know, end up really short. [laughter] Because we want to hire the best and so we wait a long time to hire people. It takes a long time.

Christina: It’s got to be tempting when you’ve got this incredibly fat pipeline and the market is red hot. You’re like, gosh, if we had three more people, boy, that would be a lot of leverage.

Chris: We looked at a pipeline recently that said if we got every single client that we could get, and we felt like was a sort of a good nibble in this business development, we could hire up to a hundred people.

Christina: Wow!

Chris: [laughter] Over time, that shook up and we decided, we said no to some clients. Some clients said no to us. It turns out you don’t actually have to grow that much.

One of the hardest parts though, is deciding between freelance and staff. We have a lot of freelancers working for us as well as staff. I like staff better, because they grow our competency and enable us to have an organization which has institutional knowledge which you don’t get from freelancers quite as much. Except that our freelancers, we like to keep for a long time, in a long-term relationship. So it’s virtual staff.

Christina: Almost staff. And you can flip them sometimes, right?

Chris: Yeah, we’ve done that a couple of times and hope to do more of that.

Christina: So are all five partners still with you?

Chris: No, one of our partners, Khoi Vinh, took his dream job at the New York Times as the design director. I think it was the one thing that could possibly take him away from us, literally of all the jobs out there in the whole world. I think he spoke to some other companies that at some point were interested in him, and the New York Times was his dream job, and he’s loving it.

Christina: Well I would be. If the New York Times comes knocking sometimes… but it’s still got to be hard right? You’ve got this core five, and you’re seeing your company turn into something that isn’t about you five guys but is its own entity.

Chris: Yeah, and actually we thought that would be a difficult transition, and while we miss Khoi very much, we were able to do it because the company had been abstracted enough away from the personalities and to the communal culture. And that culture is embodied not just in our methodology and our deliverables, but also in the zeitgeist of the group of people.

There’s five partners, well, four partners now, and there’s 16 additional employees working around the office and that’s the culture. We’re bringing people at every level and that’s great too, so we’re actually transitioning from bringing in people that we’ve known for a long time with the same experience as us, to bring in people from other cities, from recent graduates. We’re sort of nurturing that, so the culture is constantly evolving and that’s really exciting.

Christina: So let’s say that I’m a practitioner in my late twenties and I feel pretty good about my craft and my game and I come up to you and say, “You know, I’ve been talking to a couple friends and maybe I want to start my own thing.” What would you warn me about? What would you ask me to think about?

Chris: You want to start your own thing? You mean as an entrepreneur?

Christina: As a consultant. I’m going to start a consulting gig, a consulting company. I’m going to go out and there’s so much work right now I feel kind of brave and I might be able to get together with a couple friends and start a consultancy.

I know what I’d say if they wanted to be an entrepreneur and it’d be a very different story.

[laughing]

Christina: “Are you mad?” is what I’d say.

Chris: I don’t want to say it’s luck, but I think there’s a lot of faith you have to have in your own personal connections and their ability to drum up business for you.

I think you have to be shameless in certain ways. You have to tell people what you’re doing more often than you might feel comfortable with, in what they call shameless self-promotion. You have to be gentle with that too, you can’t just spam everybody, but you have to keep in contact with people, have lunch with people, something I’m really bad at.

But don’t get too caught up in your work that you forget that business development is… I’ll be honest with you, business development has and always has been, ever since we started this company, probably a third of what I do. Defining our process in a way that is digestible by clients, that is sellable, actually going to pitches, working on proposals, having a business developer on staff and helping her craft our pitch, marketing ourselves, writing press releases, editing press releases.

That’s a lot of stuff you don’t have to do when you’re working inside of an organization for someone else. I’ve seen you doing it too, a little shameless self-promotion!

[laughing]

Christina: Of course!

Chris: It’s the hard part, I think. One of the hardest parts.

Christina: Oh, absolutely. Well, I was at South by Southwest where you were, and I was tired, it was eight, nine in the morning and I was a little bit hung-over and I was like, “Oh, God. Am I really going to stand up and try to ask a question that promotes my company, and yet doesn’t do it in a really horrifying fashion.

I felt really guilty and shy and tired and like drinking water and laying down. But I did it anyway because you don’t actually have a choice. You think you have a choice, and you don’t actually have a choice. You just always got to stand up there and have a way that your company’s name gets in front of more people.

Chris Fahey: Yes, and you have to make your presentations very sleek, and even to the point where they go beyond doing what they have to do. They have to put on a good show. Another piece that I thought was interesting is really defining what you’re aiming for and knowing what your target is. We don’t say no a whole lot to clients, lately maybe more so just because of the saturation of the market.

But, you have to understand when to say no, and when to just be as hungry as possible. I can’t say that I’m not practicing what we preach, because we’ve taken a lot of almost everything that we got, but we have to decide what to pitch for, we have to decide who to contact, who to send our marketing materials to.

I guess, it’s a good idea, especially if you have partners, to have constant communication. We have summits with our partners twice a year where we just go outside and we’ll hang out for a while. It’s surprising how you’ll realize that you haven’t actually spoken to your partners one-on-one in weeks or months sometimes. Especially when you start getting a staff and you start getting kind of into your projects. So when you communicate internally with your partners, sometimes you’re surprised as to what your company vision is and then the company vision gets embodied in how you pursue business.

Christina: Interesting. I got to say, I’m very impressed that you started the company with five partners. I started the company with five partners, but we had never worked together. So a huge amount of our time was just trying to figure out how we’d relate to each other. So there wasn’t as much time that we could spend with clients or, if we were spending time with clients, we weren’t working through those details. So it was just a tremendously hard thing to do.

Chris: I can’t imagine doing that. I think we had all worked together for five years before we started Behavior or almost five years, maybe four or five years, at Rare Medium. Two of my partners had worked together for four or five years before that at IO/360, a Web design firm in New York that was pretty influential, from day one of the Web.

Also, two of my partners that I’d gone to school with in college, so we all know each other very, very well and we’re able to–I think we’d shaken out a lot of our kinks early on. Every partnership has kinks, and we still have disagreements as to how we want to do things and personal styles and stuff like that, but I think we shall grow out of it early and that was a really big event.

Christina: OK. Well, you know, MIG and Adaptive Path are both two partner companies now.

Chris: Oh, really?

Christina: Yes, absolutely. So I think that’s something else I would say, when they were starting up, it’s like start with one person and get to know them really, really well or start with somebody you already know really, really well and build from that. I got to say, those early years, as you were talking about not having any money, being scared about rent, that’s a lot of stress for any relationship, friendship or otherwise.

Chris: I would say also that part of the natural growth of a company is for partnership to break up and then people go on. There’s no guarantee that everybody, especially if you have three, four partners, wants to spend the rest of their lives doing that. People move on, Adaptive Path has had a very organic changes and behaviors, we’ve had one. Then we don’t see anymore coming, but six years have passed and we’re still together. We all put our vision, like we want to do this for the rest of our lives, that’s just how we say it, but you’ll never know.

Christina: Yes. I think that’s part of our lives, is just to remember that. We’re human beings, we grow, we change, you do one job, you do another job, you become partners and then you go off and get to be the Design Director of New York Times. That’s not personal because we’re human beings, we grow more bigger than what we do.

Well, thanks, Chris. It’s been really, really wonderful.

Chris: Thanks so much. It’s great to be on the podcast for my first time.

Christina: Yay!

[music fading]

Pioneering a User Experience (UX) Process

Written by: B&A Staff

Maybe you’ve recently been hired by a company who wants to “do usability.” It could be that you’re a UI designer, business analyst, or front end developer who’s been conducting impromptu hallway usability tests and you’ve started to think you might be on to something. Or perhaps you’re a product manager who’s realized that the key to a better product is a better understanding of the people who use it. Whoever you are, wherever you are, one thing is certain: You’ve got your work cut out for you.

Creating a User Experience (UX) process can be a very rewarding journey; it can also be a nightmare if approached from the wrong angle. Initiating a culture-shift, overhauling existing processes, evangelizing, strategizing, and educating is an enormous undertaking. Often it’s a lonely path the UX advocate walks, especially if you are the only one who is driving that change from within the company. But that path is ripe with opportunities to improve your company’s product creation process, as well as the product itself.

So, where do you start? What approaches work? What pitfalls can be avoided? How can you stay motivated, encouraged, and professionally connected—even if you’re flying solo?

Why Create a User Experience (UX) Process?

Understanding why you should create a UX process is a good place to start. If you’re already in the initial stages of UX startup you probably have a number of answers to that question already. It’s important that you know why using a UX process is valuable because you’re going to be explaining it to everyone. A lot. Many companies are just starting to realize the value of keeping their end users in mind before, during, and after the product creation lifecycle. If your company hasn’t quite figured this out yet here are two of the most powerful arguments you can make:

  • A UX process helps build products people want and need
    You’ll create a product that’s a good fit for the people who end up using it—instead of for the developer who built it or the CEO who envisioned it. This is particularly important if your users also spend their hard earned dollars to buy your product.
  • A UXprocess saves time and money
    Your team will save valuable time and resources by getting it right, or mostly right, the first time. And they’ll be faster doing it.

Keep in mind that both arguments have a strong tie to something many people in your company already value: Money. Whether it’s money gained through sales or saved through efficiency, financial impact is a very tangible way to illustrate the value of UX activities.

Start Small

Starting small will keep you from biting off more than you can chew, but it also allows you to focus your attention on building your process from the ground up. You’ll be nurturing both your growing process, and the people with whom you work, as you go. A gradual introduction to UX methodologies is much more effective than trying to completely change everything about the existing process all at once.

If you attempt to immediately overhaul the existing process you risk overwhelming, intimidating, and offending many people who could otherwise be turned into UX allies. So pick a smaller, less visible project where you can start integrating new techniques while showing your team how to build products with your users in mind.

Be sure to document and track the progression of UX activities and outcomes so that you can use that information in the future to illustrate how your process works.

Find Business Drivers and Track Against Them

 

Simply put, numbers talk. Find out what your company’s goals are and align your UX goals accordingly. When you know what’s driving strategy in the finance group, or what targets the marketing team is aiming for, and you can show how your work helps achieve those goals, you’ll be speaking their language.

For example, if one of the primary initiatives company-wide is to reduce costs by reducing the number of tech support calls, make one of your primary UX goals for the next release improved usability and a higher rate of self-support. Get a current baseline for how many tech support calls are being received on the current product and at the end of your project do a comparative analysis for the reduction in tech support calls.

Plan UX Activities Upfront

 

Another great reason to pick a smaller project is that it’s more likely you’ll have some influence on the project planning. By working with your project manager in the early planning stage you’ll be able to prepare the team for the UX activities you will be leading. If you don’t show up early and stake a claim to the dates and gates on your project, you’ll end up squeezing your research and design activities into a process that already exists—without you.

Ideally, you’ll plan an ideation phase or “iteration 0” where you help clarify business requirements by researching the real people who use your product. Iteration 0 may include some initial conceptual design work as well. When project iterations begin, you’ll have negotiated what sorts of UX activities are going to take place as you move from one iteration to the next.

Go Deep, Not Wide

A common pitfall to avoid is spreading yourself across too many projects. If you’re the only person doing UI design and usability research, it’s tempting for project managers to want you to consult on all of their projects. Avoid this at all costs.

Distributing a single UX resource across multiple initiatives is destined for failure for two reasons.

First, by working broadly across many different projects, you compromise the quality of your UX work. You run the risk of producing mediocre results on many projects, rather than doing a great job on one or two projects. You need strong examples of success, especially if you’re trying to convince others why a UX process is valuable.

Second, you will rapidly become burnt out and frustrated because you never have the opportunity to impact any real change. When your role on a project is limited to someone emailing you for your opinion, or briefly running an idea past you without any deep contextual understanding of the project, it won’t take long for you to become disillusioned. Your role on a project needs to be more than just providing the UX seal of approval.

It’s difficult to find the balance between advocating a UX process and having to say no to some projects. You may feel like you’re delivering a mixed message because one day you’re explaining how important UX activities are and the next day you have to say no to a project. But here’s the twist: As demand increases, it provides more support for growing your UX team. Every time you have to say no in order to keep your focus deep, remind those around you that it’s a sign you probably need more UX resources.

Be Realistic and Flexible

Do a reality check and figure out how much support exists for UX activities in your organization. Then adjust your expectations accordingly. If many of the people with whom you work are new to the concepts of user-centered design and usability testing, then you probably won’t be able to spend months on ethnographic research or thousands of dollars flying around the world to conduct elaborate usability tests on site.

Stay flexible. Make your points and recommendations, but show that you can see all sides and are willing to compromise as needed. Avoid dogmatic thinking that says there’s only one way to correctly do usability research or design. At this stage it’s less important that you do everything by the book, perfectly, formally—and more important that you integrate the user’s perspective to make your product better. Keep your idealism in check and introduce people to UX methods gracefully instead of beating them over the head with it.

If you’re a perfectionist you may feel like nothing is being done the right way at first. There will be a lot of kinks to iron out before your UX process runs smoothly, so try to go with the flow during this awkward stage of your evolving process. Remind yourself that the smallest amount of UX activity is light years beyond no UX activity at all. In this early phase, even the smallest bit of user perspective can have a profound effect on the outcome of your product.

You’ve heard it a million times before: There’s a lot of low hanging fruit. Don’t get too caught up in worrying about how it’s being picked, just make sure it gets picked!

Watch Out for Toes, but Don’t Avoid Them

It’s inevitable that, over the course of building a UX process, you’ll bump into others who feel you’re encroaching into their area of contribution or expertise. No one wants to hear that their way of doing things results in a bad product or the company losing money. No one wants to hear you telling them your way is right and their way is wrong.

The key is to show, rather than tell; persuade, rather than dictate. Use a screen/video capture tool, such as Morae, to make video snippets of users struggling with that widget everyone on the team thought was so cool. Convince your developer that you can make her job easier and save her time by doing the conceptual design and sketching out some prototypes before she ever starts writing a line of code. Show your product manager that you can help him define his business requirements by talking to end users and finding out what their needs really are.

Once you’ve built credibility with the team and have diffused any potential rivalries, you’ll all be on a level playing field. Then they’ll look to you for your perspective, input, and expertise rather than being threatened by it.

Be Patient and Set Clear Expectations

Being patient can be one of the hardest things about building a new UX process. It doesn’t matter how committed you are, how many hours you work, or how persuasively you evangelize…it won’t happen overnight. It’s important to set realistic expectations with others, as well as yourself. Set clear, attainable goals with your manager at your yearly review. Review those goals together quarterly and make adjustments if needed. Communicate openly about deliverables and milestones with your project manager and other stakeholders. Then deliver.

With every expectation you meet, or exceed, your case for the UX process will be building momentum. Visibility and understanding will increase with every win you publicize. But be patient.

You’ll probably have days where you question whether you’re making a difference, whether you’re making any headway at all. You’ll have days where you feel frustrated and confused. When you start to question the impact you’re having, remind yourself how far you’ve come since the pre-UX days.

Get Creative

Because you’ll almost certainly have limited resources, it pays to get creative. Show your team that UX activities do not need to be expensive or time consuming.

  • Is anyone in your company a representative user? Grab them and schedule a feedback session on your wireframes. There’s no need to recruit strangers to help with usability research unless your end users are highly specific and there are no representative users available.
  • Do you need global perspectives but have no budget for travel? Conduct remote contextual interviews and usability sessions. Webcams and online software such as WebEx and UserView make it easy to connect to users all around the world and gather valuable information from them.
  • Have you been told there won’t be a budget for hiring more UX professionals in the next few years? Teach your developers some UI design best practices, show business analysts how to conduct usability tests, lead participatory design sessions with your team. If you know you can’t hire more UX practitioners, start teaching others how to make good UX decisions.
  • No budget for expensive software and research tools? It’s amazing how much you can learn using paper, pencils, pens, and sticky notes. Learn more about paper prototyping and guerilla HCI.
  • Email video clips from usability sessions. This is always a great way to spread the UX message because it’s hard to argue with the real live people who are shown using your products.
  • Make posters showing common UX mistakes and great UX solutions.

Document Your Wins, Then Publicize Ruthlessly

 

This is probably the most important thing you can do to sell the value of UX within your organization. This is where you put it all together. You’ve focused deeply on a small project, planning and tracking UX activities from beginning to end. You understand what’s motivating your company and you can show improvements in the user experience that support those goals. Because you measured the user experience of your original product against the new product your team just built, you can prove how much better the new product is for your users. And you can clearly tie those improvements to the UX process your team employed during the project.

Once you have one UX win, no matter how small, that you can clearly map to your process publicize that story ruthlessly throughout the company. Be sure to credit the entire team for their role in the UX work that contributed to the project’s success. And get ready for more work to come your way.

Being Shallow

Written by: Grant Campbell

“It is important to consider the balance between breadth and depth in your taxonomy.”

—Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web 2nd ed., p. 67

“Deep down, I’m a very shallow person”

—Charles Haughey

We’re all painfully familiar with flame wars. But they’re not always marks of dysfunction. Watching flame wars over a period of time can make one aware of patterns within a profession. After witnessing a few acrimonious threads, you start to notice the personalities that play different roles in that community: the elder statesman (usually one of the younger ones), the enfant terrible (usually one of the older ones), the one who tries to make everyone get along, the one who delights in poking people with a stick. You can watch allegiances form and re-form as circumstances change, and glimpse the darker and less friendly thoughts of all those smiling faces at a conference. Above all, you can find the hot buttons: the statements and accusations that will always provoke a hostile response in the community.

In my lurking on various IA lists over the past 4 years, I’ve noticed that some accusations can always be relied upon to get IAs angry and vocal:

* IAs are history. They used to be cool, but they got caught on a few irrelevant issues, and have lost their chance to gain and hold a central position in today’s information environment;
* IAs are insular. They are unfamiliar with, and indifferent to, things going on outside the world of wireframes, facet analysis and web analytics;
* IAs are shallow. They may be flashy and indeed intelligent, but they don’t think deeply about things, and they have failed to reach the subterranean profundity that other fields have attained.

These are serious accusations: so serious that it’s easy for IAs to forget how easily one can make such accusations about anything, and how common such accusations are. In my 20 years on the academic conference circuit, I’ve seen many speakers punctured during question period, not by a loud-mouthed bully (although they show up, too), but by a weary, kind-looking figure with a gentle voice, who is normally reluctant to make a fuss, but cannot, simply cannot let such intellectual prostitution take place without raising an objection.

But these accusations, while easy to level at another, are not so easy to deflect. If you refute them, you sound defensive; if you get angry, you lose the moral high ground. And if you let it go, people might think the accusations are true.

And what if they are?

Let’s face it: the accusations are serious. So, let’s take them seriously. What’s more, let’s assume for the moment that they’re true, take them in reverse order, and delve into them more deeply.

1. IAs are Shallow.

Long before Dorothy Parker accused Katherine Hepburn of “running the gamut of emotions from A to B,” we’ve all been terrified of having a narrow range, or of having no hidden depths. The terror arises from that gnawing suspicion that it’s true, together with a hideous fear that other people span the whole alphabet.

Here’s a suggestion to begin with: recognizing your shallowness is perhaps the most profound act of your intellectual life. It’s the recognition that you’re mortal, that you’re busy, that you’ve got to survive in a cruel world, and that there’s more to read, more to write, more to think about, and more to solve, than you could ever possibly manage in your lifespan. I suspect that most of the standard disciplines begin with this recognition of shallowness. My doctoral program in English, which I thought would open doors onto a wild orgy of knowledge acquisition, forced me to close all kinds of tantalizing doors, and confine myself to a tiny, tiny, tiny patch of ground that I could master in four years. I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, and if you want to know how much money Juliet Granville had in her purse on page 254 of Frances Burney’s The Wanderer, I’m your man. But like most Ph.D.s, I emerged from my final thesis defense, not empowered by a sense of mastery, but horrified at how little I knew.

I sometimes wish that IAs were more shallow, that they were less insistent about staying at that giddy nexus where your small activities resonate across the entire networked world. I’ve been known to hide in my hotel room at the IA Summit, rather than risk being invited to dinner, simply because I don’t have the energy to hold up my part of an intense conversation. I sometimes wish we were less eager to leap from visualization to facet analysis to web analytics to information scent to pace layering before I’ve even had a chance to look at the menu. What some people would call shallow, I would call a fear of being shallow, which translates into a frenetic inability to calm down.

What’s more, this inability to relax and be shallow is a formidable barrier to IA curriculum development. A field has to have patches of stability: areas that stay constant, not because the world is constant, but because people are sufficiently mule-headed to insist on not changing. Ranganathan’s Colon Classification foundered, at least in part, because he kept tweaking it massively from edition to edition, making it impossible for libraries to keep up. And a curriculum of study can only develop when a field hits a good mix between navel gazing and stubborn obliviousness. Questioning is good; questioning is necessary. But there have to be times when you fold your arms and say, “Because, that’s all. Just because.” ( I teach cataloguing, and I’ve grown used to saying that. ) The fear of being shallow could prevent IAs from reaching a working consensus on what constitutes an adequate skill set.

2. IAs are Insular

Yes, they are. I’ve never seen a field more earnestly dedicated to welcoming newcomers at the IA Summit. We have nuts and bolts; we have newcomer tables; we have baseball cards. (I tried to get my sister to accept my swimlanes card in exchange for her treasured card for Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens, but she refused.) And yet in the registration area you inevitably hear wild shrieks of joy as delegates fly rapturously into each other’s arms and start making plans for a no-holds-barred, dish-it-all dinner, far away from all these other tiresome people. And at one point in every summit, the Argus Rapture occurs, where everyone who ever worked for Argus suddenly disappears for a dinner of reminiscing.

IAs make friends. IAs love each other. IA is a community, and one with solidarity and affection and mutual respect. There are worse things to be. And I can attest to the fact that if you hang on and stick it out, you’ll get in there eventually.

But what about intellectual insularity? What about the accusation that we’re not familiar with the work being done in other fields? Here, the problem is more complex, and I think it revolves around a nasty distinction: the field of practice, and the field of study.

IA professes to be a field of practice, and aspires to be a field of study. As a field of practice, it has no great need to define an intellectual foundation of its own; as a field of study, it can’t live without one. If IA is a field of practice, it simply needs to combine ideas wherever they can be found into a set of practices and skills that others find useful. If IA is a field of study, it requires a distinct field of discourse, with both canonical and resistant texts, multiple voices, and a constellation of methods of inquiry. As a field of practice, IA can lift whatever it wants from philosophy, computer science, architecture, graphic design and library science; as a field of study, IA must appropriate and redefine those things into a common discourse.

I, for one, believe that developing that common discourse is a good thing. But imagine how it looks to outsiders. Those of you with children probably know how hard it is to watch them learn to do something you know how to do very well, and how overwhelming the temptation can be to rush in and fix things that you know will go wrong. Those of you with older children probably know how irritating it is when your children learn rapidly to do something that took you years of painful study to learn, and how disorienting it is to see them appropriate that knowledge in a totally different way.

It’s hard for experts in the fields that feed into IA to sit back and watch us stumble around, and probably harder still to watch us leap ahead unexpectedly, often at the cost of some unquestioned dogma in the parent field. And it’s hard for IAs not to snap with irritation when someone pipes up with phrases like, “you’re doing it wrong, you know.” It’s especially difficult to remember that phrases like that are infinitely preferable to the alternative: “I thought all along that you were screwing up, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

Maintaining a certain insularity is a necessary part of nurturing a common discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to do it ourselves. The challenge lies in ensuring that cordial and productive relationships are maintained between those fields that lie outside that discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to ask for and give help. And if we sometimes don’t get the mix right: well, what family does?

3. IAs are History.

It’s true, and I for one am glad that it’s true. Christopher Hitchens “once called”:http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum22.html North America the only culture “in the history of the world, where the words ‘you’re history’ are an insult.” Against a culture-wide disdain for history, and for longitudinal perspectives on current problems, prominent IAs are mounting a vociferous resistance. Peter Merholz, in his closing plenary of the 2006 Summit, treated us to an enlightening history of the term “information architecture,” showing us that the term has indeed a history, and that the concepts have a history longer than the actual term itself. As a profession, IA is struggling to avoid reinventing the wheel, and that can only come from a sense of history.

But what is history, anyway? T.S. Eliot once said that history is a collection of timeless moments, and that’s a very apt description of what IA is all about. Underneath all our usability studies and frameworks and paradigms and swimlanes and facet categories lies a core conviction: if you’re going to present complex information effectively, you’ve got to stop and think about it. You have to insist on your right to stop and think.

That’s not easy to do, when a chorus of voices is telling you that you’ve missed the boat, and that the world has moved on. It’s even harder to persuade an organization to do it, when its leaders are afraid of becoming history. Of course the world has moved on; the environment that produced the first edition of the Polar Bear Book is ten years in the past, on the other side of Google, the dot bomb, the Web 2.0, 9/11 and American Idol.

Information architecture at its best is not about the cool, the newest, or the latest. Information architecture is about the breath, the pause, the stillness in the eye of the information hurricane. I’ve experienced that stillness in many places. I feel it when I play Bach, and sense those incredible structures that stand like cathedral arches within the myriad notes that I’m trying to play. I feel it when I’m programming, and I sense the logic of the program I’m struggling to create emerge out of all my false starts and stumblings. I feel it whenever I see someone, from whatever walk of life, come down from the heights to figure out patiently what’s happening between A and B. IA is history, and a part of history: one class of those timeless moments in human life when we’ve stopped chasing about, one of those moments when we’ve stopped to think.

Using Technical Communication Skills in User Experience

Written by: Theresa Putkey

It started with the small stuff. I sweated it all: field labels, button positions, lining up the label and the field, ensuring the icon was understandable. After 2 1/2 years of correcting designs, the heavens opened: the project was delayed, and no one could do the requirements and UI design. How were they going to get it all done? Special T (that’s me) stepped in to save the day, of course. “If you don’t have time, then I’d like to do it.”

I don’t care; I’ll take scraps (err—experience) where I can get it. I come from a technical communication background and seen many successes and failures with user experience in the software world.

It started as a backwards, fix-the-design approach but eventually became a more forward process, designing from a blank slate. Technical communication skills can be a great starting point to an interesting and more lucrative user experience career, if the communicator knows how to apply those skills.

User experience professionals can also learn some lessons from and find potential recruits in technical communicators as they have skills that can be applied directly to the design process.

Technical Communication Skills

Technical communicators may be the only user representative in an R&D group. As a more traditional role, managers have some embedded idea of professional responsibilities. In these situations, the communicator must speak up often: when an error message sucks, when a field label is inappropriate (or misspelled), or when the flow of a wizard doesn’t work.

Communicators must understand both the forest and the trees, and they must constantly scan for inconsistencies. As a best practice, communicators create documentation plans that include help topics, embedded assistance, and context sensitive help. When the plan doesn’t flow, the communicator speaks up to illuminate the shortcomings of a design. (A solid plan, like a solid information architecture, highlights when a feature is problematic or just doesn’t fit.)

As a communicator moves from novice to master, emphasis moves from editing messages and button labels to the placement of those elements. Grouping fields on a form or the location of forms in a program transforms into scenarios and use cases behind those forms. This is how I started my move from technical communicator to user experience.

Along with the big picture/detail skills, communicators must be able to structure information and see the not-so-obvious structure of an interface. Structuring information starts with the documentation plan, but goes beyond that exercise. As features are fleshed out, more information becomes available and must fit into the plan. I liken it to expanding an information architecture: your architecture can be too ridged, too flexible, or appropriate and accommodating.

Eventually the ambitious communicator can start to develop the initial design instead of fixing it, or find opportunity in a design vacuum, as I did. When I volunteered, the project leads thought this was a perfect fit. I always complained about the design, so why not let me do the initial design? (I also benefited from a trusting team that worked well together.)

Giving something in return: how communicators can help UX pros

Communicators are the UX professionals’ natural ally. Since communicators know that fantastic documentation can’t make up for a poor design and system architecture, they champion the cause of better design and information architecture. Communicators are in the trenches, talking with QA and developers about problems and how to solve them.

On multiple occasions, coworkers asked me about changing a design that was created by the UI designer. “It’s just a small change, can’t you just make it? It’s not a big deal.” Having seen the results of a lot of small changes, my responses included:

  • I’m sure the designer would love to address your issue…
  • I’d love to help you, but I really feel that I would be stepping on toes by fixing the problem myself…
  • He won’t bite, I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you…
  • I know he’s busy, but I’m sure if you told him it was urgent, he’d be able to help you…"

 

Communicators reinforce the idea of a formal design process and back up the designer in advocating a positive user experience. In certain company cultures, designers can be seen as antagonistic to developers and QA. Communicators can use relationships with these roles to smooth the way for the UX professional.

How to make that move

Based on personal experience and speaking with other communicators and UX professionals, here are my recommendations for making the move either as an employee or independent:

  1. Ask and don’t take no for an answer: The best way to get what you want to is to let people know what you want. It’s a good life skill. I became a communicator because I asked for the job. Once I had communication experience under my belt, I started to ask for UX opportunities and unknowingly started structuring and restructuring information in help systems with better information architectures.
  2. Just do it: If you see a need, fill it. Sometimes it may not be appreciated, but more often these kinds of actions are labeled as “proactive.” If you see a bad design, sketch a better one and show it to the most appropriate person, being sensitive to the group dynamics and company culture. Make sure you appreciate the effort already given and stress that you are representing the users’ interests.
  3. Build relationships: with coworkers and managers, making sure to tell them your career aspirations. Tell them in terms of “this is what I do and this is how it can help you.” One day, when a developer or manager has a problem, she might think, “Theresa told me she could help me if I ever had this problem…” It takes effort (and constant vigilance!), but it can work.
  4. Get a mentor: I’ve had several mentors over the years. At one company, the UI designer taught me task analysis, user analysis and UI design. He did several training sessions for the whole team. After joining the IA Institute, I found a mentor to help me identify my transferable skills and learn how to sell my services.
  5. Get your foot in the door: Taking a communicator contract can be a foot in the door to a UX job. You can get in, do a great job, figure out the company culture and scope out the opportunities for UX work.
  6. Take a class, network, moonlight: To gain knowledge outside a company, take a class on UI design or information architecture. Many websites have lists of these kinds of classes. Networking at local user experience groups is a great way to meet peers. Eventually, you might find small contracts you can do in your spare time. When you want to complete your move, you will already know people.
  7. Do informational interviews: From your networking, you’ll know people. Meet them for 20-30 minutes and ask them what skills they use, what challenges they face, what they like about their job, what they think you can do to make the move, what the market is like. Keep in touch, keep networking.

Remember that it might take longer than expected: I love when things happen overnight. I’m an instant gratification kind of person, so naturally my move is taking longer than anticipated. I keep advising myself to stick with it. As an external motivator, my spouse would freak if I went for a career change! Being independent was enough of an adjustment.

Conclusion

I’m following my professional passions from communicator to user experience professional. I’m a mover and am trying to smooth the way for those who will come after me. Not all communicators want to be in the UX field, but for those who do it is a natural move.

For those already on the design side of the house, hopefully technical communication colleagues can become allies, and you can look to them for support, insight, and maybe even as your next new hire!

Talent Isn’t Everything

Written by: Chanpory Rith

Here’s a common myth: To be a successful creative professional, all you need is talent. It’s a nice myth to believe in. “Talent” suggests a divine or evolutionary genetic gift, so if you’re blessed with the talent gene, you’re special and can be a cool creative person. If not, you’re destined to be an accountant.

… this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer.

After working three years at “MetaDesign”:metadesign and since starting my new position at Dubberly Design Office, I’ve noticed this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer. Instead, I have found that those who survive and last more than six months practice these seven habits:

  1. Work quickly.  Produce a lot
  2. Attend to details.
  3. Be versatile.
  4. Make an effort to learn.
  5. Anticipate problems.
  6. Set goals.
  7. Display a positive attitude.

1. Work quickly. Produce a lot.

In a design studio with large collaborative projects, time is money. Being fast is critical to your survival. The studio relies on your speed in two areas: Idea generation and production.

Idea generation

Being a junior designer often means your final work won’t be polished. Fortunately, design is not just about quality. It’s also about ideas and concepts. The more ideas you generate quickly, the more value you bring to the studio. Having many unrevised ideas, as opposed to one perfect concept, helps your creative director and design team to:

  • Envision the solution space, the set of possible solutions, for the project.
  • Evaluate what’s conservative, feasible, or ridiculous.
  • Create a pool of alternatives to choose from in case a client rejects the team’s initial recommendations.
  • Invite early client participation, by having more options to show and discuss.

Ideas shouldn’t remain in your head; you need to find ways to express them. Some ways to show ideas include brainstorming via outlines, concept maps, mood boards, and sketches. Also useful is rapid prototyping, the iterative process of creating rough and imperfect proof of concepts. Here are some ways you can present your ideas.

Outlines are lists organized hierarchically, much like the lecture notes you took in school. They’re a quick and familiar way to organize initial ideas without worrying about what the final design looks like.

Concept maps show relationships between concepts in the form of nodes and links. Each node represents an idea; each link represents a relationship. Both should be labeled. Their advantage is the ability to show one-to-many and many-to-many relationships.

Mood boards are collages that combine images, colors, and words to capture the general feeling of what a product or service might evoke. They’re useful for discussing general conceptual approaches without getting bogged down in details such as layout and typography. For examples of mood boards in all shapes and sizes, check out Flickr’s Inspiration Boards Pool

Sketches are drawings that approximations what a design might look like. They can be rough or detailed.

When generating ideas, keep in mind that in the early phases of a project, you should first try to generate a lot of ideas instead of having a few perfectly defined.

Second, you should create distinct ideas rather than variations or permutations of the same idea. (I still have a hard time with this one.)

Finally, don’t be afraid of dumb ideas.

Production

Even if your ideas don’t work out, you can help refine, improve, and implement the ideas of others on your team. Production—the execution stage of a design process—is a vital skill for every designer. This means you need to be well-versed in the most commonly-used software applications and prototyping methods in your studio. You don’t need to know them like the back of your hand; you just need to know enough to meet the possible demands of the studio. To become more proficient:

  • Seek help by asking another designer how to do something.
  • Search online for answers. Google, message boards, blogs, and wikis are your best friends.
  • Keep updated on product announcements, tutorials, and updates.
  • Try-out and adopt new software.
  • Practice your skills by experimenting on side projects, such as personal websites and designing for your friends and family.
  • Read sites like this one for tips and tricks.
  • Take classes on new or unfamiliar technologies. Your employer may even sponsor you.

Most major applications now come with a set of tutorials that demonstrate old and new features. As a daily or weekly exercise, choose and complete one tutorial on an unfamiliar part of the application.

2. Attend to details

Successful junior designers take great care in preparing files for others to use. They pay attention to pixels and picas, check spelling, remove unneeded files, and strive to make it easier for someone else to understand their work. Nothing will annoy your supervisor or creative director more than having to clean up sloppy work. Some tips:

In programs with layers, such as Photoshop and InDesign, name and order your layers with a logical naming convention. Delete any layers and ruler guides that are unnecessary.

Keep files managed with clear naming conventions and a logical hierarchy of folders. This makes it easier for your boss and other coworkers to find a file later.

If you have linked or placed images in a file, make sure they work when you package them for your creative director to review. Linked images should also be named according to a logical naming convention.

Make it easy for your manager to give you feedback by making a list of specific questions you need answered to take the project to the next step.

3. Be versatile

Versatile and flexible designers can weather the economic ups and downs of a design studio because they can be staffed to more types of projects. A sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot is saying “I don’t do web” or “I don’t do print.” You’ll be seen as a diva and won’t last long.

Effective designers instead say “I don’t know how yet, but I want to learn how to do it.” Eventually, you’ll learn new skills and—more importantly—ways to adapt these skills to new demands. Being well-rounded also gives you a wider range of experiences and skills to draw from when designing. This means more variety when generating ideas and a better understanding of how different disciplines can work together.

Hugh Dubberly, a design planner and educator, shared this anecdote:

“Herman Zapf, famous type designer, tells a story of his first job. He interviewed with a printer who asked if he knew how to use a process camera. Zapf said yes. He got the job and went straight to the library to read up on how to do it.”

Unlike what Zapf would say, I still hear many designers proclaim, “I don’t want to design websites. It’s too technical.” These designers close themselves off to the possibility of learning and growth as well as the reality of technology’s prevalence.

With the ubiquity of technology and the Internet, it’s impossible to avoid getting technical. I encourage every designer, whether print-based or software/web-based, to have some understanding of:

  • Basic programming concepts (functions, loops, conditionals, and variables)
  • Web development (XML, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP/MySQL, Flash)
  • Social networking and collaborative authoring (blogs, wikis, message boards, MySpace)
  • Cybernetics (study of systems, goals, and feedback)
  • Search and search engine optimization (metadata, tags, page rank, contextual advertising, personalized search)
  • Version control and content management

4. Make an effort to learn

To be versatile, you must learn new skills all the time. Effective and successful designers are lifelong learners. They are curious, enthusiastic, and passionate about design and want to learn more. This passion translates to better job satisfaction and productivity. They also:

* Seek out mentors, perhaps a teacher, manager, or industry expert they admire. * Choose jobs based on those that let them learn the most. When you’ve stopped learning, it’s probably time to leave. * Have projects outside of work (such as cute productivity blogs). * Participate in the design communities by attending lectures and other events. * Keep up with technology and become an early adopter. * Read books on unfamiliar topics. * Write about what they’ve learned and share it with others. It helps organize their thoughts.

5. Anticipate problems

Junior designers can make themselves indispensable by recognizing and anticipating potential problems for their managers. For example, you can:

  • Point out potential production issues that might delay the project.
  • Accurately estimate the amount of time you need to a task. Junior designers are notorious for underestimating the time it takes to do something, so give yourself some padding for anything that might go wrong.
  • If you need more time to do a task, tell your managers at least 24 hours ahead, so they can rearrange the schedule.
  • Alert managers when work falls out of the project scope.

6. Set goals

To be an effective designer, you must set goals for yourself. These goals can be skills you want to learn, responsibilities you want to have, and types of projects you want to work on.

Knowing and articulating these goals is especially important during performance reviews. Reviews should be more than just about discussing your past performance; use them as an opportunity to present your goals. This shows that you want to grow. It also allows both you and your manager to agree on a plan for achieving your goals.

For more about goals, check out Erin Malone’s article on the five-year-plan

7. Display a positive attitude

Companies change. One day, your company is the leading design studio for non-profit corporate identities. The next day, it decides to specialize in websites for luxury European cars. As company vision shifts, so can the staff, location, and other resources. Amidst change and uncertainty, it’s important to remain positive. Nobody likes a grump.

Here are some ways to show a positive attitude:

  • No matter how junior you are, mentor others by sharing information you’ve learned.
  • Identify problems in the studio and find ways to make them go away.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Avoid gossip and talking ill of fellow coworkers, clients, and competing studios.

Conclusion

Certainly, these habits apply to other fields as well as design. They also may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, it’s important to restate and articulate what we often forget. For junior designers who want to eventually become senior designers and managers, it’s vital to avoid believing that success depends on talent alone.

Success for a designer depends on how much value he or she brings to an employer or client. Quality and talent can be part of this value, but success requires more than that. Designers also bring value through speed, versatility, foresight, and other qualities that have little to do with talent. Talent, if it exists, is only a small part of success.

(Special thanks to “Hugh Dubberly”:dubberly for his feedback on an earlier draft of this article.)

Recommended reading:

NOTE: This article is based an earlier blog post on LifeClever, published July 12, 2006.