Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Dan Brown

Written by: Dan Brown

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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 bat episode, Dan Brown, “consultant”: and “author”: extraordinaire, deftly parries Tom Wailes’ repeated calls to oust the wireframes and task flows for prototyping and simulations. Our stalwart hero defends mindful subversion of the status quo as the best path in many corporate and public sector projects.

While exciting to throw out the bathwater, not every baby is fed by radical innovation alone.

Thanks to Tom for taking the voice baton after his previous turn as interviewee.

We discuss…

*Conceptual vs Design Documentation*
Ideation processes is where the team needs to think bout creativity and innovation. As designers, we create a set of artifacts to help us communicate.

*More detail required?*
Rather than using Wire Frames, Tom Wails says that his core artifacts are more detailed prototypes rather than wire framing, calling Dan’s approach to using Wire Frames into question.

*Know more than your audience*
Dan discusses the importance of knowing not only your audience but also understanding the corporate culture into which you’ll be working and designing.

*Government Work*
Dan points out a constraint to innovation from his experience is that most contracts are very specific with respect to deliverables. The challenge is creating within these set parameters. Dan provides examples of such creativity when designing Wire Frames.


[musical interlude]

Announcer: Boxes and Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user experience design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Dan Brown from EightShapes.

Tom Wailes: Hi, my name is Tom Wailes. I’m User Experience Director for Yahoo! Local and Maps. I’m going to be discussing with Dan Brown a few issues that came up today at the IA Summit.

Dan Brown: That sounds awesome. I look forward to it.

Tom: So a little bit of background. Dan gave a talk today, “Communication Design”. So something to summarize, I guess, his book what I thought about some of the design deliverables that information architects and designers who typically delivered over the years and made some very senseful suggestions for some refinement improvement to that. I gave a talk with a colleague of mine from Yahoo! Kevin Cheng that talked about different kinds of design deliverables, primarily storyboards and prototypes and simulations. So I’m here to talk with Dan about where he sees this to working together or not.

So Dan first, I kind of teased you a little bit in my talk after praising your talk. It was very good, I enjoyed it. But then, noting that you hadn’t already talked at all about prototyping or simulation, storyboarding, things like that which is what my team has been doing a lot of and we’ve been very little wireframing. So your reactions to that.

Dan: I think it strikes me as a very important part of the work that we do as designers. I didn’t sense any sort of disconnect between your story and my story. In a sense, I was speaking to all those people who have to jump on a project after a concept has been approved and funded and need to hash up the details. At the same time my, I guess, philosophy is meant to help people provide a critique of their own documentation and I wonder if there’s an interesting synergy there in looking at the kinds of conceptual documents that you do dividing it into layers as what I suggest.

So very important stuff that’s critical to the document versus the more extraneous stuff and using that as a model for evaluating conceptual documentation as much as design documentation.

Tom: So can you clarify a little bit what you mean by conceptual documentation versus design documentation?

Dan: Sure. What I got out of your talk was there’s this ideation process. There’s this process where we need to spend some time just spending some brain cells to think about what could be or let me get a better understanding what the problem is. We created a set of artifacts to either better articulate what that problem is, help get our heads around it, or, in the case that you were discussing, we’ve got this concept, we’ve got this idea to improve your product or create a new product and we need to sell it to the people who make the decisions and hold the money. That’s certainly what I got out of your talk and it’s something that I’ve had to do a lot in my career.

Why that stuff didn’t make it into the book, I would say is only because I was trying to –there’s a long list of documentation, I’d to cut it off that one of the things that people really do everyday in their jobs. And I was looking at your little video, I’m going, “God, if I could do that everyday, my job satisfaction would go –I mean, I love my job as it is, I’m self-employed, etc., etc.–but my job satisfaction would go through the roof”. So I see the conceptual stuff as sort of trying to sell and capture big ideas about a product or product direction. Whereas the design documentation, elaborating on the details and providing directions to the people who have to implement it.

Tom: So one thing I didn’t really cover today but it’s also part of our process that we’re trying, we’re experimenting and sort of making up as we go along, frankly. But it’s not just using interactive visualizations for the concept, but it’s also for the details that designs are right now, rather than doing wireframe or anything like that, we’re continuing only detail prototypes to help us work out more detailed aspects of the product, and that ends up being our core documentations.

It’s not to say we won’t go on to do some wireframes later but we’re involving the engineers right now in that so that they can start thinking about, “Oh, you wanted an interacting look like that. Let me think about it.” So using those kinds of –documents is kind of a funny word to use.

Dan: Artifacts.

Tom: Artifacts, those are our core artifacts now throughout the process, not just the ideation but as we’re working through the details. So how do you react to that?

Dan: I think that’s an amazing opportunity that you have. I remember you polled people at the beginning and ask them, for example, “Do you have a 20% role in your organization that allows you to just simply trying to innovate for one day a week?” And only a handful of people raised their hands and I think if you ask them, “Could you experiment with the kinds of documentation that you do to try and continue some of these prototyping or conceptual type of stuff throughout the life cycle of a project?” you get a similar number of hands.

I come from a world of government contracting, working with large Fortune 500 companies that are stuck in old school tradition, wireframes are, in a sense, –I know this is maybe shocking– innovation enough for them as far as a new kind of document. They’re used to sort of, I imagine, 1980’s IBM, big binders of functional requirements, the idea that we can translate those into some digital format is radical in and out of itself.

Can we get to a point that we’re all doing that kind of documentation? I would love that, in 10-years time we will be but in 10-years time you, guys, are going to be doing a whole another kind of creating another kind of artifact to capture functional requirements of behaviors and all those kinds of things. Does that answer your question?

Tom: It does, well, I think it does. So are you really saying that there are just core differences in the type of industries and the type of projects that might make it incredibly hard to break away from more traditional documentation like wireframes and flows and requirements, documents and things like that?

Dan: I’m not even in charge of industry thing, I just think it’s a corporate culture thing as far as there are some companies that are just not –one of my clients, for example, is a hospitality company. They’re not a technology company, they’re not geared towards that kind of innovation.

They grew out of this idea of selling hotel rooms to people. So that kind of culture is throughout the organization. They have technology people there, and they are fighting an uphill battle to do the kind of innovation that you are talking about. That hill is culture of 100 years of hospitality industry.

Tom Wailes: Obviously I know nothing about that company and that project, but I can imagine… You talk about hospitality and selling hotel rooms. At least me, from the outside, I can imagine a great opportunity to start with some visualization and prototyping to get across some concepts, particularly since you are talking about selling. I don’t know the details of that.

So what would stop you, what would make it very hard for you to say “You know what? I’m going try something different on this project”. What are the main inhibitors for you?

Dan: Oh, I’m not afraid to try something different. But I think, as designers, we need to be responsible… I’m no Steve Jobs, so I need to be responsible for about just exactly how much I am going to push the envelope.

The kind of conceptual stuff that you are creating is working for you and your organization and your culture and the kinds of products that you are working on. I think that there are opportunities to create those kinds of artifacts and documents in other organizations but maybe not push the envelope so much.

So, if I were to show that to someone who is so used to, in the flip side, seeing certain kinds of documents, it may not speak to them as well. They may be saying “why are you wasting my time with a comic?”

There is no controversy here. I am not trying to say that I don’t think there is a place for those things. I have not been able to cultivate a place for those things in the kinds of clients that I work on.

Tom: OK, I have two comments. The first is, in our environment, people were used to wire frames and requirements documents and things like that. We had been using those but we decided just to experiment with new methods like the comic storyboarding. The reaction actually wasn’t “I don’t understand that or I don’t get that or don’t want that”. It was like “oh my gosh, can you do more of this? I can see much more clearly what the core ideas are. I can be involved in giving my opinions now”. The wireframes and other kinds of documentation are much harder to be involved in. So that would be one comment.

The second comment is we talked about starting small. In what ways could you perhaps start small? I can understand you cannot just turn your client overnight into completely new processes. You have deadlines, budgets, and things like that. But in what ways do you think you could start small in introducing new ways of working?

Dan: There are things we do all the time. That culture may have given rise to a certain kind of wireframe, and I may see opportunities to encourage them to go in a different direction.

They may start with a conventional site map, and I might move them more to a conceptual model that includes things beyond web pages. It encourages them to think about maybe incorporating their users into that picture so they have a better sense of that. So I think there are definitely small opportunities. I believe we take advantage of them as much as possible.

The other constraint I wanted to point out was that, as an outie, as someone who is not inside an organization… I mean, to a certain extent, you serve clients inside your organization. But as a complete outie, my contracts are structured to do something very specific for a particular client.

So, if they hired me to help improve a set of pages or a particular function on their site and I said “OK I’ll do that but let me show you this first” they would really not happy with that because they are paying me to achieve something very particular.

I am working within the constraint of that particular project scope I need to find a way to do that things you are talking about and sell them on big ideas. The book, Communicating Design, talks about using documentation and use it in different contexts and those contexts, as the contexts vary, they will impact the nature of the documentation itself, as well. I don’t know if I answered your question.

Tom: I think you did. I’m still not entirely convinced that you can’t introduce new ways of working in a very small way where maybe you do not take any of the client’s time or maybe you only take a day. We gave some example today. I can show you some stuff later that just took two days to visualize some ideas.

So it might be something that is very lightweight and you are not beating the client of the head with it and saying “oh my god we’ve got to work this way”. It’s just like “yeah we are going to do all the things we are contractually committed to doing but, by the way, why don’t you have a look at this as well”.

Dan: I am not disagreeing with you at all. I completely think there are opportunities to do that, but my primary concern (I may get in trouble by saying this) is less about doing cool work period and more about doing cool work within the constraints that have been handed to me.

So I do want to push that envelope as much as possible but my primary concern, as a consultant, is customer service. Ultimately I can feed the kid by getting hired again. So I will do a little thing. I will show them a different kind of document. I will take their wireframes to the next level or I will show them how they can incorporate all of their flows. Who knows what it is.

I might produce a comic. We have done a couple of projects where we have done comic-like things that incorporated user commentary and very explicit screens or wireframes along with some more technical contexts. Not a comic in the true sense of the word, but something leaning in that direction. Those can be very helpful, especially when clients themselves are struggling with the scope.

That was a long rambling answer to say I agree with you.

Tom: OK, let me challenge you a little bit then. What if I was to put it to you that you would actually do better work and serve your clients better if you did less wireframing or other traditional kinds of documentation, and more prototyping, simulations and storyboarding?

Dan: I think you are right. So ha! So try and challenge that! [laughter]

I agree that there is an opportunity to do more prototyping and stuff like that. It is balancing that with the expectation of what we are going to get and what is going to work inside the organization.

In some cases, we are shielded from the development team entirely. So I am working to support to user experience team, and they are burdened with communicating with the developers. If I am going to ask them to challenge their developers, that is not very responsible on my part.

Tom: OK, thanks very much. So we sort of agree, and disagree, and agree again.

Thank you so much for your time.

Dan: I look forward to our next conversation.

Tom: Me, too.

Dan Brown

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin, Interactive Television Today ( and Boxes and Arrows, an online magazine dedicated to information architecture. In March 2002, Dan participated in a panel discussion on the creation of information architecture deliverables at the annual IA Summit in Baltimore. He also presented a poster entitled, “Where the Wireframes Are: The Use and Abuse of Page Layouts in the Practice of Information Architecture.” Currently, Dan leads the Information Design and Content Management group within the office of e-Government for the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency dedicated to protecting freedom of movement in the US.
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3 thoughts on “Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Dan Brown”

  1. I think the distinction between innie and outie was important, but I didn’t understand how or why Tom insisted on positing his approach as the opposite of the more traditional approach. I’m not sure why he insists it’s turning the process on its head. Or why the process has a head.

    Spurring teams to be more creative and innovative is probably one of the most important aspects of product development that most groups miss, but wireframes, flows, and site maps don’t work against creative ideation, they document it.

  2. i think this is the short answer: it depends. i’ve worked with everyon from shops that have well-developed ui/ux/ia methodologies in place and just want a fresh eye or another pair of hands, to shops that were just starting to extricate themselves from the consequences of ready/fire/aim development cycles

    much like the prospect of a firing squad, wireframes, user flows and site maps are wonderul devices for focusing attention when there’s more talking than decision making, and more concern for ship dates than what you’re actually shipping. the documentation makes it exactly evident what’s been thought through … and what hasn’t.

    and, yes, those tools work for even the richest applications; a user interaction is still a user interaction, and it all comes down to what happens when someone clicks

    that said, i am fine with inventing new forms of documentation for new challenges: annotated mock-ups with wireframing laid on top of ui designs for shops that insist on making pretty things before the structure is built, hybrids of many varieties, etc and so forth

    i am agnostic re methodology: you can call it xtreme, agile, or my great aunt matilda; we still need to know what we have and what where we are going; ideally, before the coding begins

    my .025.

  3. Dan and Tom, thanks. You touched on this, but this is really about a balancing act between what a client needs (if you’re an outie) and their relative sophistication with reviewing and presenting different forms of documentation. Most people can review a wireframe and annotations, but very few people outside of engineering and IA get excited by it. At the same time, that document will often be critical for the build/execution of a given design.

    If we are outside consultants, then there is a huge dependence on our client to sell the concept and the user flow internally. This has to be simple, elegant, and quick to the point so that a non-practitioner can present it convincingly. As a consultant/IA/ID, you will probably not be present at EVERY internal meeting. The dependency on the meetings, and your equipage of simple documentation to your client, is very high. Pushing the envelope with memorable documentation forms not only helps to innovate the field of UED, but gets its practices more quickly accepted by the broader business community.

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