IDEA 2008: An Interview with Elliott Malkin

by:   |  Posted on

Even if you’re trying to find one, the connections among Elliott Malkin‘s body of work are hard to see. Part family history, part science project, part home-movie, his projects span genres that, initially, seem incidental. Yet many of his web-based projects—whether they investigate “butterfly vision” or install digital graffiti throughout lower Manhattan—are connected in one simple way: they all explore unofficial signals in public space. Taking on the invisible and the imagined, his projects invite viewers to imagine things that operate beyond their perception.

His latest project, Graffiti for Butterflies, is even further afield from his typical subjects as it deals with natural science. By directing Monarch butterflies to urban food sources it “is the equivalent of a fast-food sign on a highway, advertising rest stops (waystations) to monarchs traveling through the area.”

At the upcoming IDEA conference, Malkin will discuss some of his more renowned projects, as well as some material not yet seen online. I recently got some of his time to find out more about it.

Liz Danzico: As an artist, your work investigates the overlap between memory, information, and physical space. How did you begin investigating memory as a key part of your subject matter?

Elliott Malkin: I’m actually not that interested in memory in the abstract. I’m more interested in what’s stored there, namely, the memories. For a time I was obsessed with reconstructing the life of someone I had never met, my great-grandfather Hyman Victor. I enjoyed the process—excavating memories from those who knew him. But I was probably more interested in the traces of him that remained in the physical record, first at his gravestone, then on microfilm inside government archives.

Ultimately, I found much of the information about Hyman on genealogical websites. While the memories continued to disintegrate everywhere else, on the Internet they seemed fairly well preserved (though even these will fade.) I compiled the results of this investigation at Everything I Know About Hyman Victor. I also created a device called Cemetery 2.0 that attempts to address the limitations I saw in the way that information about people is preserved.

LD: What kinds of limitations were you seeing, and how did Cemetery 2.0 intend to remedy them?

EM: Mainly that gravestones tend to provide little information about the life of a person beyond their name, date of birth, and date of death. Almost all other information about the person’s life is decaying in public archives, dispersed in fragments across the Internet, and, sadly, fading away in survivors’ minds. My idea for Cemetery 2.0 was to bundle all surviving information with their actual grave. I did this by establishing a wireless connection to the world’s most comprehensive online genealogical database, where amateur genealogists are constantly uploading and revising records about their forebears.

LD: How has an investigation of your family helped you explore information and memory? Do they mind being the public subject of your art?

EM: I suspect Hyman Victor would have appreciated his great-grandson taking an interest in him. But I take it you’re asking me about my video projects, such as Family Movie, in which I have my parents reconstruct scenes from our trove of Super 8 home movies from the 1970s. They’ve seen themselves on the big screen and on my website, and seem to get a kick out of it. As for my interest in my family, it’s probably an expression of self-absorption. That said, I tend to widen my definition of self to encompass broader categories, such as American Jew. But not all of my work deals so directly with myself or my family. I have a feeling that when I finish Mother’s History of Birds, my autobiographical streak will be satisfied.

LD: Your latest project, Graffiti for Butterflies, seems to deviate from your previous work in that it deals with natural science. How does this project fit within the larger evolution of your work, if at all?

EM: Well, it uses graffiti, which are unofficial signals in public space, something I’ve dealt with numerous times in my previous work. In eRuv I put semacode stickers on various street corners to reconstruct a sacred space that once existed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Modern Orthodox I took it a step further, using graffiti to demarcate conceptual boundaries directly onto the surface of the city. In both of these cases, my audience was human. In Graffiti for Butterflies, my audience included butterflies. And there is a further connection to my other work dealing with the invisible or the imagined, in that the ultraviolet aspect of the graffiti operates beyond our perception.

LD: What are the differences between designing for humans versus designing for, well, non-humans? How can you understand your audience when there’s no empathy, or possibility for empathy, between you and them?

EM: It can be argued that I don’t have much empathy with my human audience, but that’s a separate question. When designing for butterflies, I make assumptions about butterfly behavior based on my 7th grade-level understanding of Monarch butterflies. I know that they can see ultraviolet light and that they migrate through massive swathes of North America on their way down to Mexico each winter. So I created Graffiti for Butterflies to instigate some thinking about forms of interspecies communication that are, so to speak, symbiotic: aesthetically stimulating to humans, nutritionally beneficial to butterflies.

LD: What will you be talking about at IDEA?

I’m going to discuss my projects that deal with information and public space. I’ll start with some of the work I alluded to above pertaining to the eruv, a symbolic boundary erected around Jewish neighborhoods as part of the observation of the Sabbath, including eRuv and Modern Orthodox. I’ll also discuss Cemetery 2.0 and Graffiti for Butterflies, with plenty of material not seen on my website.

LD: By day, you work as an information architect for How does your work as an artist influence your work as an information architect?

EM: It’s not clear how they might influence one another in any explicit sense. At The Times I work within a set of organizational requirements. In my personal work, I define my own requirements. At The Times I iterate on established design patterns to help produce a consistent, quality user experience (and help invent entirely new patterns when necessary).

In my own work I think I see patterns, though I am able to control or distort these patterns in ways that would be absurd and unproductive in a professional context. And to me this draws an essential distinction between design and art. Design has a functional purpose. Designers have clients and external requirements. Art has any or none of the above. It has distortion for the sake of distortion, if I want it to. Or it can solve real-world problems. It’s up to me.


About Elliott Malkin

Elliott Malkin is an artist and information architect whose work explores the intersection of memory, information, and physical space. His work has focused on the eruv, a symbolic boundary erected around Jewish neighborhoods as part of the observation of the Sabbath. This includes eRuv, a virtual reconstruction of an eruv that once existed in lower Manhattan, and Modern Orthodox, a next-generation eruv constructed with lasers and surveillance cameras. Many of Elliott’s other projects concern the use of new media as a proxy for memory. His short film Family Movie is a reconstruction of scenes from his family’s collection of home movies from the 1970’s. He is also the creator of Cemetery 2.0, a device that connects gravestones to the genealogical database of the Mormon Church. His most recent work is Graffiti for Butterflies, a project designed to facilitate interspecies communication between humans and monarch butterflies in urban areas. Elliott is originally from Chicago and currently lives in New York City, where he works as an Information Architect for The New York Times. His work has been featured at Eyebeam, the International Documentary Festival, and The Contemporary Artists’ Center.


About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.

Long Live the User (Persona): Talking with Steve Mulder

by:   |  Posted on

“Whether you’re designing tax forms, toasters, or retirement accounts, taking time to describe who your users are and what they need can always be helpful for creating a product that will best serve them.”

You’ve tried it all. User personas as posters, ala Alan Cooper, hanging on the office walls. User personas as cardboard cutouts, sitting at the conference table with you and your client. User personas as glossy deliverables. As paper mâché projects. As collages, comics, mood boards, Word documents, lists, charts, and just regular conversations.

Through all your attempts to bring user personas into your project, one thing remains consistent: user personas are hard to get right. And even if you get them right, they’re even more difficult to integrate into your day-to-day process.

Steve Mulder, user persona aficionado, has some suggestions. A whole book of them, in fact. That’s why Boxes and Arrows needed to interview him after getting a preview of his new book, The User is Always Right, late last year. Steve’s been kind enough to talk with us and to provide us with a free sample chapter below. Continue reading Long Live the User (Persona): Talking with Steve Mulder

The Line Between Clarity and Chaos

by:   |  Posted on

“The problem used to be, ‘how do we get information out to people?’ That problem has now been solved in spades. Now the problem is, ‘how do we filter the information so that people can actually use it?'”

In order to read this article, you got a pointer. Whether that pointer was from a newsletter, your RSS aggregator, a blog, a search, or even just a recommendation from another human, somehow you got here. You got here despite the piles of other stories and articles competing for your attention. This one made the cut.

How did you make that decision? Can we make successful decisions, or are we doomed to indecision? What does the now-terrifying number of options available to us do to our ability to make successful decisions?

How do we, well, choose?

Boxes and Arrows talked with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, to get insight into new filters, successful strategies, and how the silly number of choices we now have is affecting our everyday lives.

Liz Danzico: Can you choose some key concepts from your book, The Paradox of Choice, that really drove the idea?

Barry Schwartz: We’ve always taken for granted that being able to make choices is good for our well-being. And that, as it turns out, is true. We couldn’t be human if we weren’t able to make choices; trivial ones and significant ones—where to live, what kind of work to do, who to marry, what kind of cereal to buy, the whole gamut. So choice is good. And that’s a truth.

In 50 years of research and psychology, there is study after study showing that people who are able to choose X were more satisfied than people who simply got X. But in all of those studies, the contrast was always with two options. And if two options are better than no choice, then three must be better than two, and four must be better than three, and so on. But no one ever studied that. The empirical basis for the idea is that the more choice people have, the better they are. And it seems perfectly reasonable.

What economists have said, more as a matter of theory than as a matter of empirical evidence, is that if you add options, you can’t make anyone any worse off. If you’re happy alternating between Cheerios and Rice Krispies, you can just keep doing that. And, if I add 50 other cereals, you’ll ignore them. And if I don’t like Cheerios and Rice Krispies, chances are that one of those 50 cereals that have been added will be just the ticket.

Adding options is bound to make somebody better off, and further, it won’t make anybody worse off. The more choice people have, the better they are. So how could it not be true?

It’s not true.

But it’s only in the last five years that people have started doing research where instead of having two options, people have 20. Or 200. And when you cross a line (and you are probably going to ask me “where’s the line?” and I’m going to say, ”I don’t know; nobody knows”), choice goes from being beneficial to being paralyzing. So one effect of too many choices is that people can’t choose at all.

Is that a bad thing?

“So, you overcome paralysis, you make a good decision, but for a variety of reasons you’re less satisfied with the results than if you had fewer options.”

It’s kind of trivial if it means that you don’t get cereal, but it’s not as trivial if you don’t participate in your company’s 401k plan and thereby pass up thousands of matching dollars from your employer. We have evidence to show that’s what happens. Throw 200 mutual funds at employees, and they end up saying, “I’ll decide tomorrow.” Yet tomorrow isn’t any different from today, so they just don’t do it, which is a disaster. So paralysis is one problem.

The second problem is that if you overcome paralysis, and you do choose among a lot of options, chances are pretty good that you will adopt a strategy to simplify the task of choosing. You’ll choose on the basis of criteria that may be easy to evaluate—even though they aren’t necessarily the most important criteria. The result is what turns out to be a worse decision.

There’s a speed dating study that shows when you’re looking at a lot of potential partners, you choose entirely on the basis of looks. It’s hard to evaluate how kind, how funny, how smart, or how nice 12 people are. But it’s easy to evaluate how good-looking they are. You’re meeting more people than you can take the time and effort to evaluate, preventing you from making more difficult assessments of character that are important to you. So you end up simplifying. And that’s not necessarily going to mean a worse decision, but it will likely mean a worse decision than if you could have given it all the complexity it deserves.

So, you overcome paralysis, you make a good decision, but for a variety of reasons you’re less satisfied with the results than if you had fewer options. It’s easy to imagine that one of the options you said “no” to would have been better than the one you chose. So those three things—paralysis, bad decisions, and dissatisfaction with good decisions—all kick in when some line is crossed, and people have more options than is good for them.

I was struck by the passage in your book where you talk about the Internet being “democratic to a fault.” I wondered at which point that fault started being introduced. And how has that changed, even since this book was published?

What’s great about the Internet is that all the barriers to entry that exist in the material world are taken down. These can be barriers to entry with regard to products or with regard to ideas. You have gatekeepers who keep interesting, new ideas out, and thanks to the Internet, you can get around those gatekeepers. The problem is when people start to get around them; there are hundreds of thousands of blogs. Now, the question is which ones do you actually look at? What kind of audiences do these blogs have? How trustworthy are the arguments and the empirical claims? You’re on your own.

So when I say “democratic to a fault,” what I mean is that you come to appreciate that the gatekeepers serve an incredibly important function: most of the stuff that they keep out is crap. They’re filters.

They’re going to filter out things that we’re going to be sorry got filtered out because no one judgment is perfect. But on the other hand, most of what they filter out is stuff that no one should be wasting his time examining. I read 10 professional journals. Each one comes out once or twice a month with 10, 15 articles. And the articles are hard to read. If I read all carefully, reading would be all I did. I don’t read all carefully. I read a few of them carefully—the ones that are right in my area of interest—and the others I kind of read. I look for the executive summary, and I trust that the claims made are validated by the data that were collected. Why do I trust that? Because there’s an editorial process that scrutinizes each one of these things with extraordinary care. Chances are pretty good that if somebody made a mistake, it would have gotten caught, and the paper would have never been published.

So what this means is that I can actually stay on top of my field and have a life because I let the editors do the work for me. In the world of Internet and blog and no barriers to entry, either I’m going to do all the work myself, or I’m going to walk around with a lot of bad information, or I’m going to be so paralyzed by all that’s out there that I’m going to become a shoemaker.

That to me embodies what the problem is. And there’s some evidence out there that news-type blogs have increased in their number. People gravitate more and more to websites that have a print-media presence.

Now that’s interesting. I assumed you were going to go the other way with that. I figured people were going away from websites with a print component.

Newseek. Nothing could be better for them than having a million blogs out there because people don’t know how to choose. So what do they do? They simplify the decision, and choose on the basis of brand. And that’s exactly what will happen if there are 30 different kinds of cola in your supermarket. You’ll buy Coke.

Does that hold true for millennials, the generation that has grown up with this kind of choice, the technology to support the finding of this information, and the number of choices? Do you think that generation also looks at these brands as trustworthy?

They may not trust Newsweek, but they are going to be brand dependent; maybe a different brand. It may be what gives a site credibility will be determined by key cultural influencers of their generation that they take seriously. But do I think that what’s going to happen is that they’re going to shop for their information by brand. Absolutely.

Now, Chris Anderson and I had a debate about this on the radio because his whole premise in The Long Tail is that this is all good. He acknowledges my arguments, and he’s optimistic because he thinks that the problem technology created, technology can solve. And that may be true. It may well be that Google and Google-like things that are better than Google (although that’s hard to imagine) will provide the sort of filtering devices that make us less brand dependent.

The problem used to be, “how do we get information out to people?” That problem has now been solved in spades. Now the problem is, “how do we filter the information so that people can actually use it?” And that problem hasn’t yet been solved.

But since search companies did such a great job in providing the information, why not trust that they’ll also do a good job in filtering it? It’s possible. But if that’s the case, there’s going to be a technology fix to this problem. The great Democratizing of the Internet will be much less of a democratizing because some entity like Google will be doing the filtering, so there now are barriers to entry again. And we’ll be at the mercy of filtering algorithms that we don’t know how they work. We’re going to have to trust that Google has the interest of truth at heart. It’s going to be presenting us with a structured list whenever we type something into search. And we’re going to have to hope that’s appropriate for what our interests are.

And that doesn’t strike me as democratic.

More like traditional editorial.

“The consistent problem in all of this is that people don’t know what’s good for them.”

That’s right. But it’s under the guise of being democratic. It’s much less obviously managed than a newspaper, but it’s not less managed. It’s possible that some really incredible, smart person will come up with a way of doing this so even the filtering is transparent, so people know what the editorial criteria are, and can choose their search engine based on the criteria that are most important. But that hasn’t happened yet.

So it’s possible that people in their 20s and 30s (who are much more comfortable with this sort of technology than I am) have already figured out ways to grapple with the choice-overload problem in a way that people my age haven’t and won’t.

In your book, you talk about an evolution: an evolution from when people foraged for food, the intro of manufacturing. And now, or at least when the book was published, the trend is moving back to this time-consuming behavior of foraging for information. Do you feel like people are now conditioned to not be able to forage? You talk about people falling down when it comes to these choices. Is this just a result of us being conditioned to not be able to do so?

I don’t think so. Back in the foraging days, the criterion was, when you went searching for food, “Is this good enough? Can I eat this? Will this not poison me?” You weren’t wandering around in the forest looking for the best berries; you just wanted berries. And as long as that’s true, people can forage just fine in the information world. But increasingly, people believe that good-enough berries are the point of a search. You need the best berries, and people have the illusion that it’s actually possible to find the best, and that it’s worth the effort to look for the best. And that’s what does us in.

You’re talking about maximizing, the attribute of a person who seeks and will accept only the best. Are you suggesting that the number of choices we have is conditioning us to be maximizers?

I don’t have any evidence that that’s true. People differ from one to another to the extent they feel they have to maximize. And my hypothesis is that when there’s an extraordinary range of options, people maximize. I mean, what sense does it make to maximize when there are only three kinds of jeans? What does it even mean? When there are 3,000 jeans, well, now you think, “One of them is probably perfect. I gotta find it.” Whatever “perfect” means.

But I don’t have evidence that that is true. The predication would be that in less-affluent, less-industrially developed societies, fewer people are going through life maximizing. So I don’t know that we have generated this problem for ourselves, but I suspect that we have.

During your talk at Google earlier this year, you talked about the idea that people no longer have to deal with the hand they’re dealt, and you cited plastic surgery as an example. That’s disturbing. I wonder what the implications of that behavior might be for us as designers. How can we design for people who know that they don’t have to deal with the hand they’re dealt?

The consistent problem in all of this is that people don’t know what’s good for them. If you offer people a limited range of options and a large set, most people will choose the large set. They’ll go and try to pick something, and they’ll walk out empty handed shaking their heads. So everyone’s kind of swallowed the ideology that more is better than less.

And so they’re going to demand from you, as designers, something that makes everything obviously available. And if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to provide people with what they want even though it’s not what they should want. Now, this may be changing. The response I’m getting to the book suggests that I haven’t told people anything they don’t already know. What I’ve done is identify and name something that almost everyone experiences in some or many aspects of their lives.

People tell me I like to shop at boutiques. I used to think I like to shop at boutiques because I got pampered. Now, I think I like to shop at boutiques because I’m, in effect, hiring someone to edit the choices for me. Anything that’s in this store is worth looking at. And that’s good.

So I think there’s this self-awareness that’s now developing in people that more isn’t necessarily better. In how many people? I don’t know. And in what areas of life? I don’t know. But if that were to happen, then designers could actually think about designing for what really is in the best interests of people rather than what they think is in their best interests. Because what is in their best interest is what they’ll be looking for.

I think there are ways to do this, although it’s a technological challenge, which is, you can make everything available but make it hard for people to get access to everything. And you make it easy for people to get access to things that almost everyone cares about. Another way of saying this is an enormous amount of attention should be paid to what the defaults should be on any website. What happens if you do nothing? You want to design a website so that what happens when people do nothing is what they want. Then leave it to people to act if the defaults aren’t what they want.

I read an interview with you and Mark Hurst before the GEL conference and your homepage idea: listing the top five bestsellers on the Amazon site, and having the rest available, but just making them a click away.

We tried to get [Jeff] Bezos to let us do an experiment that was exactly that experiment. We said just give us two hours instead of presenting the 20 bestsellers, present 10. And we predict that you’ll sell more books. He wouldn’t do it.


No, he wouldn’t do it. You’re not making the other stuff unavailable; you’re just making it a click away.

Well, the studies would indicate that you’re exactly right in terms of sales. The classic jam study.

Now books may be different from jam because there is not a sense that when you buy Stephen King, you also can’t buy John le Carre. Books are not competitors with one another in the same way that flavors of jam are. So it’s conceivable that the jam study is appropriate for those kinds of goods, but not for things like books. But it certainly would have been worth two hours of Amazon’s time to find out.

Seems like you would have competing stances. People like Paco Underhill might recommend putting the bestsellers at the back of the store with the milk because people know that they’re there. And then Chris Anderson might suggest bringing forward the titles that no one knows about. I would love to see the three of you design a homepage for Amazon.

The power of defaults is this:

When you enter your drivers’ license, you get asked if you’d like to be an organ donor. And if you do, you have to check a box and sign a form. And in the United States, 90% of people approve of organ donation but 20% are organ donors. There are several European countries that also use the drivers’ license as the opportunity to sign up organ donors. In those countries, organ donation is 90%. And the only difference is, in those countries, you have to sign a form and check a box if you don’t want to be an organ donor. Otherwise you are.

Designing websites is the same way. What you get if you do nothing is what you want, and that will have an enormous impact on how user-friendly people find the websites.

Your book has been incredibly well received across different industries and disciplines. Did you have any idea it would be as widely received as it has been?

I wrote the book mostly with an eye toward the people who are tortured by all these choices—people like me who face what modern America has become. It was an attempt to explain why it is a problem and then to make some suggestions about how people might cope.

It never crossed my mind that there might be an audience for this in the world of business that is creating the problem. Then, it ends up getting called one of the “ten best business books of the year” by Business Week and Forbes. And I keep getting invited to talks at supermarket professional trade associations and luxury travel trade associations and Microsoft and Google and user experience and wholesale flower industries.

So it turns out (much to my delight) that the merchants in every conceivable industry who found out about the book realize that what I was telling their customers was also a lesson to them about what customers might actually want and appreciate from their providers. Whether anyone actually has the courage (or can get them through a complex organization) to make the kinds of suggestions from my book that will make customers happier remains to be seen. At the very least, lots of people are taking the ideas quite seriously, which is, I must say, fantastic.

From Data to Wisdom: An Interview with Paco Underhill

by:   |  Posted on
“I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom.”

Six years ago, Paco Underhill established himself to the then-adolescent community of web designers as a thought leader in user research and analysis with his seminal book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. As we approach the holiday shopping season, Boxes and Arrows talks with Underhill about what’s changed about behavior research since then, the science of watching people, and new considerations for the design community.

Liz Danzico: Can you talk about what your firm, Envirosell, does and how it has a direct influence on the design of experiences?

Paco Underhill: We’re concerned with the point where people, products, communication, and spaces all meet. And at that point, we interact with the design world at all levels—whether it’s store planning, whether it’s designing websites, or whether it’s working with firms that specialize in wayfinding, packaging, or consumer graphics.

My primary job is chief executive officer of the principle testing agency for prototype stores and prototype bank branches across the world. Of the world’s 50 largest merchants, [our firm] works with roughly half of them, and last year, in 26 countries across the globe.

I tend to associate you and your company with shopping because of the books you’ve written that have so influenced us as designers, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and The Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. How large a role does shopping research play in what you do?

Well, we are not specialists in e-commerce, but we do work for our bricks-and-mortar merchants who have online presences. I also do consulting work for software companies that are developing or refining products to service online products.

Something that’s of particular interest to our readers is process, and yours—at least the one that’s been published about your company—has remained quite inspirational because of the way you study people. Can you talk about it?

Over the past 20 years, we’ve been asked to look at what people do. And we’ve been asked to develop measures that provide some sort of alphanumeric measurement to the shopping process. And over the past 20 years, we’ve probably used more than 1,000 different measures. Now, that said, we have a series of different tools we use:

  1. Watch what people do.
    The first is the simple idea of observation—going into a space and watching what people do. That may be how someone interacts with a kiosk; it may be watching how people interact with a section of the store; it may be looking at how people interact with a prototype package; it may be how people move thorough an entire store or an entire shopping mall or a stadium or a museum or a hotel lobby.

  2. Record what people do.
    We’ll often install small video cameras and record what people do. And over a typical year, we’ll shoot more than 60,000 hours of some of the most profoundly boring videotape you’ve ever seen. And we take it into our studio and watch it. The video could be the details of how someone is interacting with an ATM; it could be the way that someone interacts with a touchscreen; or it could be how someone pulls a tube of toothpaste off the shelf and uses it.

  3. Interview people.
    The third tool is interviewing people. And that can be done in a variety of different ways—mostly it’s done on location. We may stop people as they are walking into the store; we may stop people as they are walking out of the store; we may stop them as they’re walking into an aisle; we may stop them as they are walking out of an aisle. We may also recruit them so we can go shopping with them.

  4. Combine stuff.
    We may interview someone we watched and videotaped. Ask them a series of questions and then compare what they said to what we observe they do or what the cameras recorded them doing.

The tools you’re describing—videos and interviews—require in-person observation. Have you also begun to do any kind of online observations?

No, those are different ways of collecting data. In our work, we don’t collect the data, but we help the people who collect the data to process and analyze it.

You have a thousand different measures that you’ve used in the past—a rich set of tools. Which part of the process do you get most involved in with your clients?

I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom. I like to tell my clients that we’re in the business of giving them intelligence and wisdom, and if they want to collect data, or if they want to collect information and process it themselves, that’s their business.

Given that you’ve been studying consumers for at least 20 years, I’d be interested in how you would characterize the changing nature of consumers.

There are a series of issues that come up in every job that we do:

The first is the issue of visual acuity, which is that our visual language is evolving faster than our written and spoken word. The way we process symbols, the way we deconstruct what we see, is marching faster than the words we write, and what we say to one another. It is very important to be cognizant that while the connection between our eyes and our brains has never been better, our eyes themselves are tired. One of the challenges that the design profession has is that the overwhelming majority of people constructing designs in 2006 are generally under the age of 30. And one of the persistent problems that they have is that they are designing for themselves and not for the larger audience.

The second issue is that we live in a world that, even in 2006, is owned by men, designed by men, managed by men, and that we expect women to participate in it. And whether I’m looking at a lingerie store, a new gasoline station, or a website; I’m asking, “is this female friendly, and if not, what can we do about it?”

The third issue is that we live in a world in which time is in a state of acceleration. And therefore the perception of ease is as important as the reality of ease.

“We live in a world in which time is in a state of acceleration. And therefore the perception of ease is as important as the reality of ease.”

And finally, and this is particularly poignant in an online community, is understanding what is global and what is local about the nature of whatever you’re designing for. We often make the assumption in the design world that I can sit in San Francisco or in New York City and design something, and it will fit the markets that I’m designing for. One of the biggest challenges that the online community faces is recognizing that somebody in a small town in Iowa and somebody in New York City often have completely different sets of needs and stimuli.

So the perception of ease and the reality of ease are different things and both important. Can you talk more about what you mean by perception versus reality?

Well, there are a couple of ways to look at that. First is recognizing that a website should be designed for somebody who’s coming for the first time and someone who’s coming for the twenty-seventh time. And that, for the person coming the first time, the staging of how you get them to where they want to go is an important way of closing on the experience. Where, on the other extreme, for someone who’s been there the twenty-seventh time, you want to be able to provide efficient shortcuts so they’re not going, “Why am I looking at this again when I don’t need to?”

We know that people now have more access to, well, everything, which is changing the ways we interact with both people and information. What effect is that having on our relationship with brands? Are you finding that brands are playing a different role in people’s decision-making processes?

All the tools of 20th century marketing (brand, sales promotion, marketing) don’t work as well as they used to. Branding as a tool, generally, works best with an insecure consumer. The older we get, the more secure we are in terms of who we are. While we certainly rely on brands and trust in brands, we don’t necessarily aspire to brands. When we deal with the younger consumer whose image is not as well formed, they will often aspire to a brand.

It seems almost like people are becoming brands themselves—or at least doing it faster or in a more visible way than before. Whereas once you didn’t know the CEO of the company, now Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs are rock stars.

I think this is one of the challenges in management organization in the 21st century. Through the 20th century, we often worshipped at the altar of the chief executive officer. And for so many companies out there now, their success is less about what happens in the executive office as the degree to which they are successful pushing the tools down the line to the sergeants and captains who deal with the company tactically.

And this may be different for online companies because they’re still in their infancy. But if you’re dealing with mature companies—whether it’s retailers or product manufacturers—being able to effectively respond is part of their success.

In your book, The Call of the Mall, you talk about the importance of display windows in making a first impression. How will new technologies change your thoughts on where people may be developing first impressions—it may not be at the store’s display windows at all.

Either we supersize or we specialize, meaning that we have to find a way to better customize our offer. This gets back to an important shift in consumer marketing: for so many consumer-marketing companies, growth was generated by opening new doors. In 2006, we are looking at ways of increasing same-store sales. And the problem becomes being able to make our products relevant to whomever it is we’re selling it to.

“Either we supersize or we specialize, meaning that we have to find a way to better customize our offer.”

That doesn’t mean customizing it to the individual, but recognizing that there are distinct baskets out there. Let’s say I’m selling consumer electronics. Selling into a highly tech-savvy market is different than selling into a market where you have huge ethnic community versus a market where you are the only seller in town.

Selling in Raleigh, selling in Washington D.C., or selling in a small town in New Mexico—each one of those places has terribly different characteristics. Whether it’s adjusting my packaging or my marketing efforts, I have to reach my customers much more efficiently.

What kinds of projects will your firm be working on in upcoming years?

We’re about to start a series of projects with different public libraries across the country, looking at how a library moves somebody up the ladder from a novice to an intermediate to an expert and their usage of a library. We’re trying to think about the design and communication aspects of a library as a lifeline to what the idea of a public library is long term.

Last year, we spent a good deal of time on the hospitality industry—whether it’s the nature of a hotel lobby, or check-in desk or the transition from inside to outside, and the degree to which that is the same or different in different parts of the world. I’ve been walking around the issues of hospitals and wayfinding. How do I take pubic areas or nursing homes and make them more customer friendly?

And I’m currently pecking away at a book that is talking about how the changing aspect of women is affecting the design community.

It seems that the intelligence and the wisdom you spoke about earlier would lead people to pretty clear answers to solve clients’ problems. Why is this still so hard to execute?

Part of what I love about retail is that it tracks changing consumer habits. If you think about what made a good store in 1980, in 1990, and what makes a good store today—they are all different. And while they’re driven by a certain biological constant, there are a series of other factors that are in a continual state of evolution.

I don’t think I’m going to be out of business in the near future.

Dogmas Are Meant to be Broken: An Interview with Eric Reiss

by:   |  Posted on

At a university where robots were celebrated and MBAs were heroes, I studied technical writing and communication design, using the combination as a way to understand how to write and design for different audiences. At that time, these studies—called mostly “technical writing”—took the form of the reticent user manual. Sometimes it took form as an instruction booklet on how to operate a washing machine. Other times, it took form of a help system on golf course irrigation. You see, the content always differed somewhat fiercely. What remained remarkably the same, however, was the need for clear ways to communicate instructions. Jargon-free text, clarity, and concision were the dogma of our days as technical writing students. Tech writing, as humdrum as it may be reputed, is rich with wildly helpful principles and guidelines.

And writing is still where we find many well-known guidelines. William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, perhaps best known for the staple The Elements of Style (or, in some circles, the latter for Charlotte’s Web), are the most prominent household name on word slashing and clarity. “Omit needless words,” they caution. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. …”

Since those days, I’ve been interested in finding the same kind of principles written specifically for web design. There are, no doubt, Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics. But I’ve been searching for something that allows for a bit more autonomy—guidelines that provide structure without confining. That’s why, when I saw Eric Reiss’ Web Dogma quietly hanging on the wall at the Information Architecture Summit in Vancouver, I was intrigued. This simple, typewritten list of 10 said the following:

Web Dogma ‘06

  1. Anything that exists only to satisfy the internal politics of the site owner must be eliminated.
  2. Anything that exists only to satisfy the ego of the designer must be eliminated.
  3. Anything that is irrelevant within the context of the page must be eliminated.
  4. Any feature or technique that reduces the visitor’s ability to navigate freely must be reworked or eliminated.
  5. Any interactive object that forces the visitor to guess its meaning must be reworked or eliminated.
  6. No software, apart from the browser itself, must be required to get the site to work correctly.
  7. Content must be readable first, printable second, downloadable third.
  8. Usability must never be sacrificed for the sake of a style guide.
  9. No visitor must be forced to register or surrender personal data unless the site owner is unable to provide a service or complete a transaction without it.
  10. Break any of these rules sooner than do anything outright barbarous.

Now, Eric Reiss started out as a stage director at the Danish Royal Theatre in Copenhagen gave him his first introduction to designing experiences. Since 1984, he’s been a business strategist and writer, and in 2001 founded a web design company. With training in everything from stage design to Egyptology to hypertext games to web projects, Reiss has had extensive practice in finding out what makes an experience work. Could these be the principles I’ve been waiting for? I tracked down Reiss in Vancouver to find out.

I need to know about the Web Dogma, the ten principles. What are they all about?

I don’t know whether you’ve seen the Danish movie The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg. This was a so-called “Dogma” film. In 1995, Vinterberg and another Danish director, Lars vonTrier, got together and wrote down ten rules they called Dogme 95. This was a reaction to the gaudy Hollywood films where there was a lot of lighting, a lot of special effects. Their dogma dictated that cameras had to be hand-held, you had to use natural lighting, if you wanted to use a prop, you had to find a location where that prop existed; you couldn’t import things into the actual film.

I did some voiceovers for Lars a couple years back during post-production on Dancer in the Dark with Björk, and I asked him about his dogma and provocation. I thought, there has to be a way to do this for the web. The problem is that we have standards. And standards are very useful. We agree, for example, that in the United States, we drive on the right. But in the UK, Australia, Japan, etc., they drive on the left. Doesn’t mean one is better, but we’re at least in agreement where the cars should be on the road. So that’s a standard.

And standards are just standards, and they can change as technology changes. Best practices are guidelines; they’re not rules. It’s best to keep two seconds worth of stopping distance between you and the car in front of you, for example. That’s just good common sense. As cars get faster, these distances change, and the best practices change. But they remain only guidelines.

The trick with doing a dogma for the web was to avoid the “rules syndrome” (For example, Links should be blue.) for best practices that were liable to change as technology changed. How do you do a set of rules or guidelines that would prove helpful despite the technological advances and would also be relevant as fashion changes?

That’s how the dogma came about. It’s not particularly spectacular, and it’s not the Ten Commandments. These are simply why users find [some] sites and devices less usable than others.

Why are some sites and devices less usable than others?

For one, because today’s content management systems can be pretty sophisticated and throw up all kinds of things that it thinks are related. Because we design pages that often have, for example, a three-column format, designers and editors feel obligated to fill that third column. Often that stuff is just noise.

As sites become more complicated because the technology is available, then we need to step back and ask whether we’re doing our users a service by providing them with information that is not necessarily relevant within the context of their own mindspace.

Just to clarify then: the dogma is for designers of all kinds. It’s not for users.

No, it’s not for users at all. It’s absolutely for people who are working with web design, and I use “design” in the broadest possible sense. Could be content providers, could be graphic designers, could be experience designers, could be business people who are trying to unite business goals with the goals of users.

But why leave out the users? Couldn’t they use these principles to evaluate what is good?

Well, I think they are using them already. In many ways, they created them. They can’t use sites that violate many of the principles. And “principles” is even a dangerous word. I don’t want this [dogma] to be more than it is. It’s just a list of things that I’ve found work really well. And if I look at sites that either work or don’t work, they either follow or violate one or more of these edicts.

I’d like to go back to the first one: “Anything that exists solely to satisfy the politics* of the site owner should be eliminated.” Aren’t a site owner’s politics the reason that many people read one site over another?

Sometimes, but not always. Most of us have met executives who insist on adding content that is completely personal in nature: “I want a picture of my wife’s cat because this is really important for her.” That’s, of course an extreme example, but there’s a lot of stuff, particularly in HR sections of big, corporate websites, that is not useful to site visitors. A lot of people put information on the site in a cover-your-ass fashion. And that’s unfortunate because it distracts from whatever the main emphasis is.

I’d like to remove the clutter.

Some of the best websites I’ve seen have been ones that are truly personally motivated. This may not apply for a large company, but an “About Us”-like section is really only about a person’s politics. And site visitors can kind of gain a lot of meaning from that. At least I do.

Right, I agree with you. And I realize that there are also a lot of blogs and other websites that are absolutely politically motivated on the part of the site owners. However, their audience is also there to learn and to get a take on these people’s politics. So, in fact, the information is relevant for the user. I love political sites. I love blogs. I love that people have a forum for discussing what’s going on. Because that, by its nature, makes the content relevant.

Just because things are called “political” doesn’t make them bad. It’s when a site clutters itself up with stuff—somebody in marketing insists on including a particular photo because they dated the model once, or whatever. Invariably in any large project, you run across bits of content that serve no purpose whatsoever other than to make someone in the organization happy. This is the kind of stuff that I’d like to take out.

What do you think of the web-specific heuristics and other criteria that might exist out in the world? How does your Web Dogma fit in with those?

Heuristics are fine as far as they go. I do a lot of heuristic website evaluations, and those are based on best practices. You know, for example, if there’s some sort of a horizontal divider on the page, people have a tendency to ignore stuff above the divider. If you take search results, and pull something out as a “best bet” and put it in a box, a lot of folks will skip over it because their expectation is that they will get a list, so this is what they look for. And they’re going to skip stuff they think is marketing fluff. So, those are heuristics and those are fine. It’s also based a little bit on what’s going on at the time. What is the fashion? What are people used to? People learn skills on one website that they expect to use on another website. Is it intuitive, or is it something that requires instructions? Heuristics take all of these things into account with a value judgment to say, “This works” or “This is something that can be improved.”

My dogma is not meant to conflict with heuristics because heuristics change. I see these as being more general rules that will apply for many years. And this is the difference between the Dogme 95 and my dogma. One of the mistakes the first Dogma made is that it suddenly got very categorical: All film should be shot on academy 35 mm. That dates the dogma. And I’ve tried assiduously to avoid anything that would date it, but to find general principles that transcend technology and transcend specific media.

But in one of your principles, you use “page” and said “readable first, printable second, downloadable third.” Won’t those things date it?

As long as things are still two dimensional, the page metaphor works. No matter whether that page is a mash-up or if it’s a more sophisticated 2.0 application, it’s still something that exists in a two-dimensional form. And so until that disappears, I find “page” to be a useful term.

I think I want these principles to apply to ubiquitous computing. Using technology or format-specific terms strikes me as limiting them from being used outside the context of a two-dimensional space.

I hadn’t really thought much about that. Ubicomp does things automatically, gives me information that I want but didn’t necessarily ask for. When it starts giving me information I don’t want, then it’s time to re-read the dogma. I called this “Web Dogma” because I am mostly thinking about websites. We go on and on about folksonomies and Web 2.0, but the truth is we didn’t even really get Web 1.0 very good. There are a lot of sites that just don’t work. And there are a lot of sites that work surprisingly well despite being put together by the neighbor’s kid. It’s wrong of us to be so elitist.

Take all the zillions of websites in the world, then subtract all the websites that have been done “by the book,” and we still have zillions of sites left. Then, let’s deduct all the sites that don’t work for one reason or another. You’re still left with zillions of sites. So there’s something that indicates that the neighbor’s kid is still doing a pretty good job. He’s maybe not a trained designer, but let’s face it, I get a lot of pleasure from hobby sites put together with a stick of chewing gum that fulfill my needs. And I know a lot of sophisticated sites that fall apart because they violate these dogma.

Take the sites that are built by the neighbor’s kid or look like eBay. They’re so successful, but are poorly defined by the book definition that you’re talking about. Why do we love them?

They’re fulfilling a need. The mistake that is being made is that people say, “Ugly sites sell better.” And there’s no cause and effect here. And the people who are trying to imply a cause and effect (“Well, if we make our site ugly, it will work better”) are fighting a nonsensical argument.

Of course, they’re fulfilling a need and they’re abiding by the dogma that you talk about.

There was a lot of talk a couple years back about the back button being the Back Button of Doom because 62% of people who hit the back button are unable to complete their task. Well, my contention is that by the time people hit the back button, something else has fallen apart in the system. They are unable to complete their task. They’ve either gotten lost and need to back up to someplace where they can recover their bearings, they think they missed a link, or there’s bad navigation and they’re pogosticking. There are things that are falling apart for them, and it’s not the back button’s fault. Gee, I‘d better write a letter to Meg Whitman and say, “Your site really sucks because I have to rely on the back button.” Because on eBay, it’s much more convenient to use the back button then to use the site’s navigation. Everybody who uses eBay knows this. That does not make the back button bad.

A lot of the things that are being said in the name of best practice just don’t hold true.

Interesting. It’s almost like the Prairie architects.

Right, Frank Lloyd Wright. Fallingwater meets Cascading Style Sheets.

Yes. They used the landscape as part of their design. They didn’t try to design against it. It’s like eBay using the back button as part of their design.

I don’t know if eBay did this consciously, but that’s the way it works and I haven’t seen much in the eBay design process that has changed the way I operate, and I’ve been using the site since 1997.

What made you put forth the Dogma now?

This has been percolating for about three years now. A couple of months ago, I finally started showing it to people because I couldn’t continue in a vacuum. There were a range of comments that didn’t necessarily change the text of the dogma, but helped me prepare the answers to the kinds of questions you’re asking now. It is open to a lot of interpretation and I suppose if I were more mercenary, I would write a book and explain what I meant. But I’m kind of hoping that people will figure this out for themselves. These are pretty generic patterns. Maybe somebody else will take it up and write about it. I’d like it to be a general tool, and something that’s useful to a broader crowd.

Would you feel insulted or flattered if I compared what you were doing to Strunk and White?

Oh, I’d be flattered. I still have my Strunk and White, and it’s probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read. But I’ve also been a professional writer for 20 years now. The last dogma was stolen directly from George Orwell—it’s his tenth legendary rule of writing.

Update: After this interview, Reiss edited #1 in the Dogma, adding “internal” before “politics” to make his point clearer.