Our Way: The Ingenuity of Unintended Uses

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No matter how hard we try to create designs for certain uses, people will always utilize them in their own way. These unintended uses can be strange, even brilliant. In the end, you have to tip your hat to the ingenuity.
To welcome 2008, the B&A Staff digs into our collective experience to tell a few stories of misappropriation of both the real (things you can buy) and ephemeral (ideas and thoughts) that we misuse for our own devices.
We hope you find some inspiration and add stories of your own ingeniousness to the comments.
Happy New Year,

Unintended Uses and Innovation
Very often, people use things in ways never imagined by their inventors. The makers of Excel probably never envisioned IAs one day using their application to create wireframes for web site, for instance. (Some IAs do use Excel for wireframes, you know).
Just consider the trash can propping open a door or that stack of books holding up the end of a broken shelf or the refrigerator door used as a bulletin board for the family. Examples of unintended use are all around us. I’ve even heard of double bass players using their large, soft-shell instrument cases to nap in between rehearsals like sleeping bag. Odd!
Here’s one thing I do: I use my browser bookmarks to manage passwords. After bookmarking a site that requires a password, I go into the properties of the bookmark and append the password to the title of it. (Not the most secure thing, I know, but there are worse things you could do, like having passwords on sticky notes all around your desk, which many people do). Did the makers of IE or FF intend that? Probably not.
Improvising and re-purposing the objects around us is common. In the ethnographic research for my company, we try to focus on is unintended use. Where do people find work-arounds to the tools and software they normally use? Where do people find hacks? The answers to these questions often point to places where a system breaks down, where people need a better mouse trap. And this is where there is potential opportunity for innovation and where product developers can bring real value to their users.
But unintended uses are also something that usually don’t come out in things like questionnaires or even usability tests. Instead, you have to go out and observe people in the natural setting to get this type of insight. Observing unintended uses first hand is an important source of inspiration and ideas for innovative design, I believe.
Take a quick look around your home. What things are doing that fall under “unintended use”? You probably don’t even realize that you are using many things in an unintended way. Most people don’t.
James Kalbach

Real: Paper Airplanes
My grandfather was an aviator as a young man, and a printer in later life. A considerable part of my childhood was spent making paper airplanes in his print shop. I was obsessed with making and flying them; there was something fascinating about transforming an inert object—an incredibly simple one, at that—into something that could soar.
My brother and I created hundreds of paper airplane designs. The first were very simple: one folded sheet of paper. Later ones incorporated other materials: glue, tape, balsa wood, metal clips, electric motors, even small Hot Wheels cars. We learned basic principles of aeronautical engineering: how to balance the plane’s weight around the wing, how to shape wings for optimal lift (or speed, as need be), the functioning of the diverse control surfaces, etc. We challenged ourselves to make planes that could fly smoother, faster, higher, or just look (or fly) unusual. Our paper airplanes were more than mere toys: they were a basic design education.
Fast-forward thirty years. I hadn’t made a paper airplane in a long time… until my nephews came along. They seem fascinated by paper planes! And their uncle knows how to make lots of them. So what was originally my plaything and obsession has become a bridge that helps me connect with a new generation in my family.
You can’t buy paper airplanes, but you can make them easily enough. Here’s a basic plane for you to try out…


Ephemeral: Bachelor of Arts, Architecture
When I entered architecture school, I expected to spend the rest of my life making buildings. However, I wasn’t too clear on what this actually meant. I’d known a few architects, but only had a very vague notion of what they did day-to-day. I was in for a shock.
The first couple of months in architecture school were among the most important in my life: I now had to think about and through design. My colleagues and I worked hard; the educaton of an architect is primarily a studio-based affair that entails long hours (“all-nighters” were common) and brutal group critiques. The objective seemed to be to understand (and exploit) the relationship between meaning/purpose, technology, and “human factors”. In the process I acquired many practical skills, ranging from arc welding to Photoshop. I was also exposed to concepts that changed my outlook on life: “Design Thinking”, Modernism, Derrida and those other nutty French post-structuralists.
Then something happened that would derail my plans: during my last semester, a friend from the Computer Science department showed me the internet. I was intrigued. Later—a year into my professional practice as an architect—I got on the web for the first time. It was clear to me that it was going to change the world, and that creating stuff on this medium would require an understanding of the relationsip between meaning/purpose, technology, and “human factors”—exactly what I’d been trained for. I dropped the drafting pencil and bought a book about HTML.
—Jorge Arango

Real: Here’s Thinking of You, Kid

forlorn bowlMy sister and I get on incredibly well, belying the fact that our experiences have been so different. Starting early on the family track, she still lives in myhometown with her two kids and will probably be there for a long while. On the other hand, I have traveled the world, lived in San Francisco, and now reside in Montreal with me, myself, and I.

She gave me some nice black earthenware bowls last year for Christmas. Being somewhat a minimalist, it can be difficult to find gifts for me. I receive a lot of small art and kitchen gifts. I appreciate them immensely, but my entertainents rarely feature multiple courses (or sorbet), include 15 people, or require serving vessels. As a result, I didn’t use the bowls for about six months. They sat in forlorn neglect on my kitchen shelf, poking little pins of guilt into me on regular occasions. Sigh.

One thing I do like is small rituals. One day while burning stick incense messily on a totally inappropriate incense burner, it dawned on me that the bowls would work amazingly well with some sand I had on-hand. The white sand stood inlovely contrast to the bowl and proved a perfect resting place for ash incense remnants.
Having expanded the use somehwat, I now enjoy the bowls quite often, thinking of my sister all the while.

cb bowls
Ephemeral: Do As I Do

I always have a mentor, sometimes several, as I like to ask people about how they got to be so great at x or y, try out his or her method myself, and come back for a bit of discussion.
My first mentor found me* way back when I was fresh out of college, thinking I would go immediately become an uber-consultant at Andersen (now Accenture) or Deloitte. Instead, I ended up as a temp on the phones at a mortgage servicing company. Talk about a reality check. The trainer at that job was amazing. He made the class fun even among some of the most boring raw material ever conceived. A few days outside of class, he pulled me aside and asked me, "What are you doing here? You can do more than this." Well, now it’s obvious that I was there to meet him.
Starting at that moment, he mentored my career for years, even helping me slough off some social awkwardness as I shifted from a suburban to a city resident. During this process, he helped tune my observational skills in ways that still benefits me every single day. One of his big themes was "play the game better than anyone else." I always had a hard time with this idea, as I was constantly amazed (and still am) at how organizations communicated in one direction (from top to bottom). It wasn’t until I ended up in San Francisco that I finally found a game that I wanted to play – to change the game!
I feel like my work is to find ways to help people listen to each other. It turns out that one-way communication is just a symptom of people not understanding context. Most of the time my suggestions manifest themselves as an interface, but others end up as changes to business plans, communication policies, and relationships between people inside and outside the organization.
To this day, he still makes fun of me on occasion, grousing that I never listen to him. But I did, really! I just had to apply his advice in the exact opposite way of how he intended. I can never thank him enough for sticking with me.
*Yes, I realize that this, too, is the opposite of how it normally works. Welcome to my world.
—Chris Baum

Real: Contact Lens Holder
As someone prone to headaches, I learned the hard way that having some remedy with me at all times is crucial to my personal and professional sanity.
The problem is that most packaging for headache medicine is either too bulky (and loud, carries in a purse) or hard to open (and struggling with super-hard plastic packaging is definitely not an option when faced with a headache), so using a contact lens holder is just perfect.
A free lens case is included with online lens orders, so it’s nice to find a perfectly good use for one of those seemingly useless extra cases that would otherwise end up in the trash. Besides, a contact lens case has two compartments—one for a simple headache remedy and the other for a major disaster. And that makes for a great, though unintended use of a real everyday thing.
—Natalia Minibayeva

Real: Skills Transfer
My first job after university was at a forensic psychiatric centre. We assessed the whole range of mentally disordered offenders: crime. mental disorder, and myriad combinations. Working there required patience and compassion as these people were not, um, at their best considering their mental state or legal situation. One time the only thing that kept me from getting a severe beating was my refusal to break eye contact with a six-foot-four screaming, angry patient. I did this kind of thing for 14 years as my wife and I raised our kids and I went through graduate school.
Time went on and I finished graduate school and began teaching. One of my first thoughts was "that’s 14 years of experience successfully binned". Was I wrong! The very skills of compassion and patience that I learned in the mental hospital (loony bin, nut factory, pick your euphemism) were precisely those needed with my students and (from time to time) my colleagues. While they have never threatened me and rarely yelled at me: they still have required a similar understanding as they pick their way through new territory. While the reasons for being there are different (pick a crime and I have worked with someone charged with it) the anxiety and fear are all too similar. This has also encouraged me to not dismiss any experience and try and fit it into my bag of tricks.
—Bernie Monette


Ephemeral: Holiday Potty
As a Chicago suburbanite, it is inevitable that my family will visit the German Christmas Market at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago. There’s also a pretty good chance that I’ll be walking around that little village-like setting drinking from a mini-boot mug of hot spiced wine or Dinkle’s hot chocolate, momentarily transported to that tiny village.
As the father of a four-year-old, it is also inevitable that my daughter will find the least opportune moment to have to go to the restroom. Since my wife is 30-odd weeks pregnant, that generally means that there isn’t even a chance to roshambo to see who the fortunate one is that gets to accompany the mostly-adorable child to the facilities to take care of this business.
Don’t get me wrong–I can handle Daddy-duty just fine and can deftly change a diaper or wipe a nose with my sleeve on a moment’s notice, but sometimes it can be fun make a sport out of it.
After perusing the various overseas goodies from a variety of the shops, getting our pictures taken with the giant tree and with Mr. Clause, my daughter determines that it was time. THE time.
I feel a brief moment of pure, unadulterated terror as I consider my options until I feel a tug on my gloved hand and hear, “Daddy, I’ve really got to goooooo!” My focus returns and we head out in the direction of the restrooms that people within earshot kindly point out to me with knowing smiles.
The dread sets in as I realize that the “restroom” at Daley Plaza is nothing more than a plastic teal Port-A-Potty. The last time I checked, Port-A-Potties aren’t exactly made for more than one person, yet alone 1.5 people in full-on winter garb. The terror returns as I have visions of shuffling around clothing while trying to get my daughter into position.
We round the corner and are met with the surprisingly pleasant view of a couple of tents, each surrounding its own Port-A-Potty on one side and a table on the other. A very sturdy glass door provided entrances, and we quickly placed the coats, etc. on the table and got down to business. The rest is pretty uninteresting, and I am sure you’re thankful for that.
However, somewhere out there in a planning committee is a person who, when placing squares on a layout plan for Daley Plaza, considered that the freezing cold was not the ideal place to use a Port-A-Potty. That UX genius on a committee somewhere may a small–but very significant–change that kept our pre-holiday festivies… Festive!
—Russ Unger

Real: Alarm Clock Muffler
The oldest everyday-use thing I have in my home is my alarm clock, it’s a small digital green Casio clock that I’ve had since I was in primary school, think the size of half an ipod, or a small cell phone.
I have a sensitive ear, and a rather light sleep. Regular alarms are too loud for me and when they ring I wake up in shock, clinging from the ceiling and with an over-revved heart: not a good way of starting your day. So, since my alarm clock is so small, I place it under my pillow every night, with the speaker facing the mattress. This dims the beeping alarm substantially and wakes me up in a much less traumatic fashion.
Ephemeral: Communication Architecture
Darrin Stevens (of Bewitched) was one of my childhood heroes; he introduced me to the world of advertising, which fascinated me. Later on, I would copy corporate logos on my notebooks at school and take notes on my history class in a medieval font.
Upon leaving high school I went directly to a school of communication that had great reputation in the local advertising industry. I deeply enjoyed my years at the communication school. We were taught the basics of visual design and worked hard on copywriting. We had creativity and non verbal communication workshops, and, of course, theory on communication, advertising, and social sciences research methods. We worked on practical campaigns, always with tight deadlines. At that time I did not have strong presentation skills, yet I was always the intellectual author behind the scenes.
One day during our communication theory class we came up to McLuhan; the teacher explained how he said that all media are extensions of our senses, like cameras being extensions of our eyes, but I was mesmerized by his statement that electronic media are direct extensions of our nervous system. At this point – the early nineties – the Internet was becoming popular. As the son of an IBM employee, I’d long been an early adopter of technology, and I had a strong interest in the Internet. If McLuhan was right, going online meant having your nervous system directly connected to the whole world: to potentially anyone anywhere, or maybe to everyone at once. I was intrigued and decided to focus the rest of my career on the Internet.
Leaving school, I taught myself web design, as there were no schools ready for it yet here, and later I would become my country’s first information architect. During my years of IA practice, I’ve found the skill set provided by the communication school to be very useful for an IA, and I’ve always looked at the Web as a communication media: where computers are just the canvas and the key is allowing people to interact with each other. The recent expansion of the web to the masses, with millions of people forming online conversations, is proving me right.
—Javier Velasco

Real: Necklace art
necklaces.JPG About 12 years ago I got a job in an antique store that sold jewelry. Up until then, I usually found a necklace I liked and wore it constantly, even in the shower, for months until I got bored with it. But my boss wanted me to wear the jewelry so that the customers could see what it looked like on someone and be more likely to buy it. The more I wore it, the more I wanted it. And she gave me a good discount.
Years later I found myself with massive amounts of jewelry. The earrings and rings were easy enough to store but the necklaces got tangled and I never knew what I had when I put them in drawers.
One day at Ikea, I saw three packs of cheap wood and glass 3×5 photo frames for $1.99. I bought a couple of packs then got myself some tempera paint, brushes, and a bunch of little nails. I went through all my magazines and picked out great photos of pearls and red paint and shoes. I painted the frames, put the magazine photos in the frames, and hammered the little nails into the top of the frames. Then I stuck the frames to the wall over my bureau and hung my necklaces from the nails. My necklaces were both organized and very lovely art on my wall.

Ephemeral: Book of love
I was hired to write a book about online dating. I’ve been a writer since I was 12 and it was my dream to be published. I didn’t care what the subject was. I knew I could write about it and I hoped that it would finally be my big break into the writing world. I hadn’t actually dated for four years. But that seemed like a moot point. I never actually intended to date; I just figured I’d post my profile on a bunch of sites to see how each worked and what kind of responses I got and that would be enough research.
Then, I got a response from an interesting guy. I gave in and went out. Suddenly I was dating. I was also writing my second book about online dating while working full-time at an office job. I never intended to date anyone seriously—who had the time? But once the second book was done, I found myself still surfing the online dating sites. And after several duds, I found myself out on a date with someone cute, funny, and really interesting. And he liked me, too.
Two years later we’re engaged to be married. The books did nothing for my career, but they found me him. And my life is infinitely better for writing them.
—Alyssa Wodtke

Real: Alumninum teapot
I am slowly, reluctantly accepting that toothbrushes available on the market today will never, ever fit in the built-in toothbrush and cup holder of my 1929 bungalow.
When the thing I’d been using to contain brushes and paste finally rusted out, I went looking for a replacement. I wanted something funky and vaguely retro, but also something that could survive the inevitable fall onto the tile floor. I found a sweet, two-people-for-tea-sized brushed aluminum teapot, sans lid, at a junk shop.
The handle still sticks straight up in the air and is a neat divider between brushes and toothpaste tubes.
Ephemeral: Landscape design
In the fall of 2001, I had a service come to my house to see what could be done about my wacko yard. She talked, showed me pictures, asked me questions, and did a sketch. Only after the guys stopped digging, tidied up the mulch, and left did I realize: That sketch she’d done was a wireframe, and I though I’d thought I knew what she had said, it wasn’t until I saw the finished project and the consultants had all vanished that I realized I didn’t know how to read the wireframe or the specs.
Two epiphanies came from that experience:
One, that I need to be much more gracious and careful with my own commercial consulting clients, because my own fluency in wireframes is really an esoteric skill, and it’s not fair to expect them to understand me. I have to take time to teach.
Two, once I went back and reviewed my conversation with the designer and looked at the plants she’d chosen to put where, I knew I could do a better job than she’d done.
So, I started the landscape design professional development/certificate program at George Washington University. Twenty-some courses later, I’m doing landscape design as an occasional freelance gig. I thoroughly enjoy the pace and educating clients about native plants—but mostly I enjoy a living, tangible outcome from my efforts that smells nice, too.
—Cinnamon Melchor


Real: Office Supplies

small paperclip ornamentI love office supplies. When I’m on my own, I miss them, when I’m in a big company I hoard them. Many make their way into my life.


A paperclip can be twisted into an ornament holder for a office tree.

binderclip-sm.jpg A binderclip holds recipes in place (and out of the line of fire) while cooking. You see another reuse—a simple S-hook bought at the hardware store. These are used all over our house; our pans hand from them, belts in the closet, plants from the ceiling… the S-hook is a miracle of design elegance.

postit-sm.jpg Finally, post-its provide the volume of paper a two-year-old needs to express herself, and the stickiness needed for momma to display it.

Ephermeral: Waiting Tables

For a long time I’ve joked that everything I learned about people, I learned waiting tables. There are many lessons you get seeing people interact with one of their three primal needs. You are all that stands between them and food; in fine dining you are what stands in the way—or stands behind—a good night out. In fine dining, the price is even more tangible. A fifty-year-old in a tuxedo can become a two-year-old in a second, and if you don’t feed him while stroking his ego, the de-evolution can go much farther.

For example, I know now that no matter how busy you are, the customer must feel like they are the only people in the world. That means looking them in the eye and explaining slowly and patiently truffle risotto is not made with chocolate, even when your perepheral vision tells you one table doesn’t have water, another is waving at you desperately, and hot food is on the line with a rabid chef giving you the evil eye. The illustion of complete attention must not be broken! In the office, this translates to really listening to people when they talk to you, and not answering the phone or reading email. Humans don’t like to think they are the least interesting thing in the room. If you consider it, you probably wouldn’t like that either. Have you waited while your boss IM’s, or a coworker takes a call in the middle of you explaining a complex problem? Have you done this?

I also learned that no matter what happens, you can save or ruin the entire effort in the last few things you do. Give perfect service and then bring the check slowly, and the tip goes down the drain. I swear you can lose a percentage point for every minute past when the diner wants the check they have to wait. The same goes for everything else in life. You can do a perfect IA but have sloppy design or poor writing, and the IA doesn’t matter much to the overall usability. You can design a great shopping experience but a lousy cart, and there they go! Off to buy at Amazon! You can do a perfect spec for a brilliant product, but deliver late out of disorganization and no kudos for you … or worse, someone else beats you to market. An experience isn’t a good one unless it’s good from start to finish, and finish is the lasting impression.

Finally I know from experience, "I’m sorry " can change everything. If you’ve messed up, forgotten an order, you gotta own up and apologize. Even if the kitchen overcooked the steak, it doens’t do to explain or or excuse: say you are sorry. You are the face of the restaraunt. Giving away a free dessert doesn’t hurt either … after all it’s the last thing they’ll remember. And in the office, no matter how tempting it is to blame it on the other guy, apologize. If your team messes up and you are design lead, you must take responsibility as well.

Of course, a free dessert doesn’t hurt either.
—Christina Wodtke

Pioneering a User Experience (UX) Process

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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.

Oldies and Goodies: A Book List of Holiday Pairs

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“The source I always go to when in doubt about word usage, sentence structure, or those niggling little language problems that exist—whatever the medium.”

Still need a holiday gift for your favorite designer or writer? Current and former Boxes and Arrows staff talk about books that have thrilled them recently, as well as books they continue to go back to year after year. Holiday pairs give you something old and something new to choose from.

Jorge Arango



Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidDouglas Hofstadter
January 1999 (20th Anniversary edition)
A brilliant, challenging, witty study of the nature and structure of thought—human and otherwise—that draws on formal systems, zen, artificial intelligence, music, paradox, recursion, and other fascinating topics.



Universal Principles of Design
William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler
October 2003
100 design principles—concepts such as affordance, constraints, figure-ground, etc.—clearly explained. Includes many examples and illustrations. (As you’d expect, it’s also beautifully designed.)

Pat Barford



The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr., E. B. White
July 1999 (4th edition)
Best book ever about writing well. The source I always go to when in doubt about word usage, sentence structure, or those niggling little language problems that exist—whatever the medium. Readable, compact, and jam-packed with valuable information There’s also a killer online version.
Editorial note: the online version is only half the story; it’s all Strunk and no White. Spend a couple bucks and enjoy it in print!

Liz Danzico



The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Erving Goffman
May 1959
Like Henry Dreyfuss who used his background in theater design to define the field of ergonomics, Goffman relies on the metaphor of theater to reveal elements of human behavior—elements key to interaction designers. Pointing out that an interaction is not just about the performer, but about the audience as well, Goffman presents us with a text critical to any interaction designer. Although written in 1959, this book still brings new evidence about how to build coherency in interactive models today.



Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (9th Edition)
Joseph M. Williams
December 2006
You write. You write all the time: stacks of email messages, instant messages, text messages, reports, rants, and reviews. And you follow rules. You follow rules you learned in high school: don’t begin a sentence with “But,” don’t end a sentence with a preposition, and never use fragments. In a time where writing happens more often than not and where the rules no longer apply, we need a book to tell us how to break the rules elegantly. Truth is, they were never meant to be followed in the first place. Williams, in this 9th edition, presents a stunning set of guidelines on how to break the rules, and how to diagnose the problems with your own writing.

Alecia Kozbial



The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman
September 2002 (Reprint)
Norman looks at the design problems that occur in our everyday lives. This book is an excellent introduction to usability and smart design.



Designing Interfaces
Jenifer Tidwell
November 2005
I have found Designing Interfaces to be an invaluable resource. It is a collection of well-organized UI design patterns for a wide selection of platforms, desktop, web, mobile, and other digital devices.

George Olsen



Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques
Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano
December 1994
Graphic designers have had five centuries of beta testing to figure out communicate effectively. While written for designing applications (in the pre-Internet era), Mullet and Sano show (in a visual manner rather than theorizing) how to apply graphic design principles to interface design.



What Management Is: How It Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business
Joan Magretta
June 2003
A jargon-free primer on how business (and not-for-profit) organizations work from the perspective of management. More of a comprehensive exploration than traditional how-to, it’s a good way to see the bigger picture and understand the point of view of the “business side of the equation.”

Lars Pind



Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques
Kevin Mullet, Darrell Sano
(Editor’s Note: So good, that it’s on the list twice.)
I’m an engineer, not a designer, but this book has given me the vocabulary and tools and theory I need to understand and make decisions about design, not as decoration, but as an integrated part of the communication between software and people. I love it.



Against the Odds: An Autobiography
James Dyson
April 2003
A beautiful entrepreneur story. I’m a big believer in the renaissance, in the combination of art and engineering in one individual, in engineering and design being fundamentally inseparable, a belief I share with James Dyson. On top of that, the 13 years of meticulous iterations and the suffering of setbacks before the final breakthrough is just a plain old good story.

Javier Velasco



The Tree of Knowledge
Mumberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
March 1992
What is life? What is a human? How does our perception work? These are some of the questions that this brilliant team of neurobiologists confront in this book. It’s had an impact in many areas of current knowledge.



Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld
November 2006
I just got my copy of the Third Edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Morville & Rosenfeld. The previous editions have always been favorites and a must-have for all of us. This is a book that has been critical for the development of our field. It seems like the book has been thoroughly revised; I see new screenshots and new subtitles everywhere. It has been updated to include social classification and navigation concepts, and all those other things we’ve been discussing since the last edition. Some advanced findability notions are also considered, as well as more depth on user needs, enterprise IA, and strategy. There’s also more on deliverables than ever before. While sticking to roughly the same amount of pages as the Second Edition, this book seems completely refreshed. I look forward to have a chance to sit down and read it cover to cover.

Emily Wilska



Chicago Manual of Style
University of Chicago Press
August 2003
So it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d curl up with on a Sunday afternoon. It is the place to look to find the answer to any style-related writing question you’ll ever have (such as whether to hyphenate style-related).



I know, I know: it’s not technically a book. But it’s the perfect example of the power of good, thoughtful design, and of the value of making common tasks (like connecting to a network) as simple as possible. Plus, it’s stunningly pretty.

Christina Wodtke



Managing The Professional Service Firm
David H. Maister
June 1997
Should be required reading for anyone in a service profession, including in-house service teams. Teaches you how to (among other things) navigate the treacherous waters of being paid to give advice.



Making Comics
Scott McCloud
September 2006
A strangely compelling combination of “how to”, and “philosophy of” words and pictures working together. If you loved Understanding Comics, it’s worth the perusal. It’s not quite the concise masterpiece that Understanding Comics is, but it’s so chockfull of insight, you forgive the meandering moments.

Learning, Doing, Selling: 2006 IA Summit Wrapup: Overview and Pre-conference sessions

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“Yes CSS is nifty, yes we like blogs, yes sitemaps are hard. But where can you go to understand an epistemology for practice, or that tags can be used to create self-organizing learning communities?”

Because Boxes and Arrows was launched at an IA Summit some years ago, we have always had a soft spot in our hearts for this conference. Because each year it grows smarter and more sophisticated, we continue to follow it. The following are impressions, reviews and reports of the 7th IA Summit. Enjoy!

Conference overview

Reviewed by: Christina Wodtke

After seven Summits, what struck me was that for many of us, the Summit is like a high school reunion—if you liked everyone in high school. Only once a year you see these people, yet they are somehow close friends. Perhaps in the past, there have been Summits where there were “in” cliques sneaking off without the “out” cliques, but each time I went to dinner, I was able to both renew an old friendship and start up a new one.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

I think the presence of children also marked a change in our profession—we’re growing up. My daughter Amelie was the only baby dedicated to attending presentations (and disrupting them, perhaps), but I saw other babies and children around the edges of the Summit, and I hope this trend continues. I think the community is a bit special. Not the party-hearty types (although IAs can hold their drink, and do it like Irishmen); IAs adore long conversations about ideas. Perhaps that’s why the Summit continues to be one of the most intellectually challenging of the practitioners’ conferences.

Sitting in one session, I found myself hard pressed to keep up with what I was hearing, while realizing the ramifications and possible applications. I kept having to stop jotting down ideas in order to keep up with the complex concepts the speaker was sharing. The Summit is like that; you don’t dare snooze, yet you can’t help join hallway conversations, can’t help writing down how a speaker’s talk will affect your work, and you don’t dare sleep for fear of missing the concept that will shape your year.

I think the days of beginners-only conferences are numbered … and I’m glad. Yes CSS is nifty, yes we like blogs, yes sitemaps are hard. But where can you go to understand an epistemology for practice, or that tags can be used to create self-organizing learning communities? Where else can you chat with Dave Weinberger in the lobby and discover that he was afraid of the intelligence of his audience?

Hooray for Dorkstock!

Conference overview, continued

Reviewed by: Liz Danzico

“Without learning about the context of our business leaders, how are we going to reveal to them the insights we come across every day?”

The annual IA Summit turned seven this year in Vancouver, and for me personally, it marked my fifth year attending. Playing the role of a practitioner, but at times feeling more like an anthropologist, I’ve been fascinated to observe the evolution of the profession—an evolution neatly punctuated by this annual event.

Early conferences were tirelessly (and necessarily) dedicated to defining the thing, while later conferences focused on tools and methods. And while some people are still wondering about definitions, they are no longer asking the questions. Conversations such as these have moved to the hallways (and often, bars), while the presentation rooms are dominated by new interests. This year, in a word: tagging.


Photo credit: Jorge Arango

Indeed there were seven panels on Monday alone that had “tag” in the title (thanks Peterme for pointing that out). This presence, however, may be less about concepts of tagging, and more indicative of a larger consideration of context that is unfolding. Whether that context is about the state of our content (as stated by David Weinberger), the state of our users (as suggested by the Web 2.0 and tagging panels), or the state of our process (as demonstrated by the wireframes and scientific scenario sessions), one thing is clear: we are being pushed to consider the fuzzy edges. New contexts are shaping the way we conduct our professional IA selves with our teams and with our audiences.

This year, as with any other, much of the learning took place both inside and outside the presentation rooms. Here were some of the key themes this year:

From designing interfaces to designing frameworks
Web 2.0 was 2006’s Rich Internet Application (RIA), giving way to rich discussions of new ways of working. For me, what was most interesting is an emerging shift from helping users understand applications to helping designers and developers understand users.

Game on
Between Jess McMullin’s standing-room-only discussion on incorporating game playing into the client work to Yahoo’s Communicating Concepts on Comics session on using comics in the design process, play was certainly a theme this year.

The IA is in
Not since the Baltimore chicken has there been such a present addition to the hallways of the conference. The IA Institute’s “The IA Is In” mentoring booth served as a place to get and give advice. So was it missed that Dan Brown set up a virtual booth on the IAI’s mailing list after the conference. We did, no doubt, witness the birth of a tradition.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

A marked difference this year, importantly, is how many other people are deftly covering the IA Summit. The team at Boxes and Arrows is thrilled to see this since it allowed us to take a different approach to our typical journalist-like approach. In this year’s summaries, you should see a bit less play-by-play coverage, and a bit more commentary and opinion. Other excellent coverage is listed below. Thanks to the 30 volunteers that helped us cover the conference through writing and photos!

I look forward to continuing to watch the evolution as the Summit moves to Las Vegas next year!

Enhancing Your Strategic Influence: Understanding and Responding to Complex Business Problems (Or, O Strategy, Where Art Thou?)
Victor Lombardi, John Zapolski, Scott Hirsch, Harry Max, Mark McCormick
Conference description

Reviewed by: Chris Baum

Where was this session when we started our careers in technology? How many times were you told, “That’s a great idea, but we’ll never be able to sell it. The CEO really wants…” We could have saved untold teeth-gnashing had Management Innovation Group (MIG) existed back in The Bubble. Alas, all that pain was necessary to lead us to this point.

Most user experience professionals are still focused on outputs and practice rather than helping their organizations use our insights to transform the way they operate, grow, and change. Articles and conference programs titled “Selling User Experience” and “ROI of Usability” try to help these poor souls justify their existence and extend their influence. While well meaning, such exercises merely ossify our position as tactical participants in the business cycle.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

In the last year or so, an interest has started to solidify around business practice and how the “design-thinking” can lead to new insights and create change within organizations. Still, many user experience professionals simply do not understand how to assert themselves in an effective manner, nor do they have empathy and familiarity for the senior executives and the challenges they face.

The session description sounds more like a semester course and sets an impossible goal for one day, but the MIG partners and their colleagues focused on a few key concepts an a detailed case study:

Reset our personal context (Scott Hirsch)
Stop thinking like practitioners that are rationalizing or begging for attention. Start creating change. Look at Accenture’s top 50 business gurus, only four are CEOs.

Understand the underlying principles of strategy (John Zapolski)
Strategy is about making choices, saying NO. Companies choose their strategy by making a series of prototypes. Think about the IA special skills; big part of value creation is being conscious where you are today and what levers you can pull to get to where you want to go.

Keep the numbers in mind (Victor Lombardi)
Instead of attempting to force correlation of design activity to business metrics (ROI, etc.), we should recognize that number projections are prototypes–and finance people are the designers. Connect the business way of thinking that drives the certainty to the profits and capital analysis–it’s no more concrete than a design idea.

Show an example in practice (Mark McCormack)
Wells Fargo has created a detailed (and unfortunately proprietary) methodology allows them to treat design decisions as business choices. Anyone who has been involved with the larger organizational resource allocation processes can recognize how a model like this one could integrate design into the process–where it is desperately needed.

Focus your energy to recognize opportunities (Harry Max)
We are trained to be hyper-aware of how a user experiences our interfaces, but at times are less aware of how our organizations work or how we are perceived. Ignore the organizational chart or the stated strategy on our way to finding the right places and people to effect real change.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

Taking the temperature of the room after the presentation, I understand why some people were able to see the impact of the resetting the context and recognizing opportunities, but had trouble with the implications for the middle three ideas. As a product manager, I have participated in these business currents for some time now, and I found great value in these discussions.

Most companies are still doing their strategies and resource allocations with vague descriptions of product directions and some numbers “prototypes.” IAs can provide more depth with our abilities to research, ideate, and prototype solutions.

Without learning about the context of our business leaders, how are we going to reveal to them the insights we come across every day? We need to translate them, not expect them to learn our language. It will be interesting to see these ideas permeate the IA community.

“We all used to draw. I just forgot to stop.”

Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques
Kevin Cheng, Jane Jao, Mark Wehner
Conference description

Reviewed by: Christian Crumlish

I just spent all day in a seminar led by Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao, both currently at Yahoo! Local, on the subject of Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques and I came away from it with some great ideas about how to communicate web interface and functionality ideas at the early, prototype stage of a project using comics.


Photo credit: Javier Valasco

They started the workshop by going around the room and asking everyone to say who we were, what we felt passionate about, and why we were there that day. Afterward, Kevin said that either we were lying or that we were the only workshop participants he’d every encountered in which most everyone claimed to be passionate about their work.

Kevin asked if any of us had read Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, a book about creativity in corporate structure which he recommended highly. He also asked us all how many of us considered ourselves artists (about half did, which is a higher fraction than he usually encounters). He said that in first grade most children consider themselves artists. Then with each passing year about half stop doing so. When people ask him how he got started drawing, he says “We all used to draw. I just forgot to stop.”

Jane took over the presentation for a while to discuss various tools they’ve used at Yahoo (they both currently work at Yahoo! Local) to develop site functionality, including requirements documents, personas, user scenarios, and storyboards. They found that requirements were rarely read and personas were interpreted differently by different people.

The solution offered was to use comics as a relatively cheap and easy method intermediate between video and static sketches, and avoiding the problems of traditional storyboards which, by “detailing screen by screen progressions created a focus on the interface, rather than the concept.”

They taught us some principals of communicating with comics, and some key elements of an intuitive visual vocabulary. Kevin’s slides and handouts included examples of facial expressions and body language adapted from classic comic-art texts for the context of interface development.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

They asked us to draw each other and then they had us make smiley faces. They showed us how more abstract, less detailed faces allow the viewer’s imagination to project ideas onto the drawings. They also showed us some paneling tricks to suggest motion and the passage of time.

The next phase of the workshop was a hand’s on exercise. We were broken into groups of two or three people each and given a small assignment that would be plausible in the context of Yahoo! Local. We were told to brainstorm some solutions (with pictures), think big, and write down our assumptions. In the case of my group, we were asked to come up with ideas that would enable a person to plan a trip to Europe.

We came up with a high-level scenario in the form of a list of actions and then narrowed it down to something manageable. Then we collaborated on a script and mapped out a sequence of comic panels. Finally we drew, inked, and lettered our comics.

After lunch we paired up with other teams and acted like user focus-groups, giving feedback on the scenarios and suggesting what we found useful, confusing, etc.

The workshop inspired all kinds of thoughts about how I could employ these techniques in the early, strategic stages of an IA project. The techniques we learned could help communicate and get buy-in for hypothetical user-interfaces, both within our multidisciplinary teams at my agency and with our clients.

Reviews of other conference sessions are available by day:

Summaries elsewhere
Functioning Form, Luke Wroblewski
Glacial Erratics
graphpaper, Chris Fahey
Looks Good Works Well, Bill Scott
UX Matters

Learning, Doing, Selling: 2006 IA Summit Wrapup: Saturday

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“In a world where facts are a dime a dozen, and tags are the new black, will knowledge become a commodity?”

Opening keynote
David Weinberger
Conference description

Reviewed by: Liz Danzico

For some keynote speakers, the opening plenary is an opportunity to talk about a trend or the prediction of a new tipping point, concepts illustrated through a carefully constructed PowerPoint with charts and graphs to back up those concepts. For David Weinberger, the Summit’s 2006 keynote speaker, it was that, but it was also a unique opportunity to work through new material, material that hasn’t been figured out yet…even by him. Of note, these concepts were key themes of each Summit presentation that followed in the subsequent sessions—the implications of tagging on the creation of meaning and our definitions of authority.

Authority, in the past, appeared to be an objective concept. Merriam-Webster, Encyclopedia Britannica, the New York Times, and even the fantastical that was “Sesame Street” all offered a sense of objective truth. “Because I said so” often meant the end of the conversation when dealing with authority figures. A doctor’s diagnosis was only countered by a “second opinion,” but nothing further. These dead ends were largely a result of the lack of opportunity to discover different or alternate opinions.

David Weinberger

Photo credit: Javier Velasco

Likewise, there was a time when authors might have been the best judges of what their works were about. A single person or group of persons was the automatic authority on the content because he created it. Weinberger claims this is no longer true: taggers are. Users, he boldly introduces the Summit by saying, are now determining the social order, and there are new definitions of authority.

What implications does this have? Does it matter that I want to tag a “penguin” a bird, although it may not be the best example of the commonly held definition of “bird?” Weinberger would argue, “Many,” and “Absolutely,” respectively.

It seems, he lets us know that we are seeing an externalization of meaning in a way that not only hasn’t happened before, but wasn’t possible before. If you were to understand a hammer in the past, you would have to understand not only nails, but the economy, the sun, the et cetera, creating referential context. Now, none of that is necessary. Whereas once books externalized knowledge and calculators externalized arithmetic, now new systems are allowing the externalization of meaning.

But, sure, it’s not perfect.

We create messy playlists; we create our own “poorly designed” homepages. And, without question, they’re not perfect, but they are good enough. “Good-enough information,” as Weinberger calls it, is, in fact, pretty good.

We’ve spent a long time creating knowledge; now we’re building meaning. In a world where facts are a dime a dozen, and tags are the new black, will knowledge become a commodity? We just may need to wait for his upcoming book Everything is Miscellaneous, to find out.

Opening keynote, continued

Reviewed by: Donna Maurer

In this inspiring keynote, David Weinberger drew on work from a range of philosophers and linguists to answer the question “What’s up with knowledge?” He discussed the fact that the data, information, knowledge, wisdom continuum is the wrong way around; the seven properties of knowledge; and the differences between knowledge in the real and digital world. He also discussed the nature of authority and finally, the topic of this year’s summit, tagging.

He noted that despite tagging’s current popularity, we will still have hierarchies, we still have the semantic web, and we will continue blogging to pull together rich information.
Although minor, one thing that stuck with me beyond the session was a comment about a recent attempt at defining tagging. David suggested that instead of defining it, just point at del.icio.us and flickr (both prototypical examples of tagging)–that’s tagging. It doesn’t need to be defined when we have such strong examples.

I can’t wait until his next book comes out and I have a chance at understanding all this…

We Are Not Alone: IA’s Role in the Optimal Design Team
Jared Spool
Conference description

Reviewed by: Hallie Wilfert

Why is the iPod miles more popular than any other mp3 player? What makes Netflix more popular than Blockbuster? It’s not the features or functionality of these products, but rather the experience that they provide their users that drive their popularity. Jared Spool’s presentation centered on UIE’s current research that is looking at how to build the “iPod of user experience teams.”

When people talk about how much they love Netflix, they don’t talk about the amazing information architecture (IA) or the seamless use of AJAX. Experience design, when done well, is invisible—which can sometimes make it difficult to sell. However, when done poorly, experience design can have a huge impact on a business.

The skills required for a good experience design team are multidisciplinary. A great team has expertise in analytics, copy writing, IA, usability, ethnographic research, understanding of social networks…the list goes on.

In their research, UIE has discovered that there are three ways to build an experience design team:

  1. Consulting. Often defined as getting in the “guy from the east coast with charts.” This approach only works in a small organization with a few projects.
  2. Review and approve. A consulting team cannot touch everything, so policies to review and approve designs are implemented. This approach moves very slowly and bottlenecks are created.
  3. Educate and administrate. The team does not touch every design. Instead, by giving people the resources and education they need up front to create a good design, the team can ensure understanding and commitment to UX throughout the project

The Educate and Administrate model is an empowering approach and it allows for the entire organization (including the boardroom) to become engaged in designing the experience. This approach is made up of a few key elements:


  • Have a clear vision of success
  • Disseminate user knowledge—talk and share what works and what doesn’t work
  • Embrace the teachable moments. When a problem occurs, look at it as a chance to learn.
  • Build a communication path to all design agents


  • Make it cheap to collect feedback on new design ideas
  • Share learnings across the organization—don’t just keep the knowledge within the design team.
  • Make good design the path of least resistance. If it’s easy, then people are more likely to comply.

So what is the role of the IA in the experience design team? Just as not every hospital can afford to employ someone who just performs hand surgery, few design teams can afford a person who specializes only in IA. Jared stated that information architecture is a skill set within UX design and does not have to be done by an information architect.

Jared Spool

Photo credit: Javier Velasco

Flexibility is essential for practitioners since the need for specialization is driven by the economy. Specialists, that is, people who can dive deep into a specific discipline, exist and survive only when there is demand, while generalists, people who can bounce between disciplines, serve lower-demand economies. Both generalists and specialists can gain experience and skills through repetition and study and both are required for UX to succeed.

Lest the IAs become uncomfortable with this pigeonholing, Jared made it clear that specialization is not equivalent to compartmentalization. Specialists, he said, have enough experience with other skills to understand and interact in those areas whereas compartmentalists only work in what they know. In this light, he stated that IAs must be versed in other UX disciplines.

Additionally, Jared’s talk ended with a call out to the IA community who should support:

  • Information architecture as a skill set for the UX generalist,
  • IA as a specialty, and
  • Moving to the Educate and Administrate model to build a successful UX design team.

Setting the Agenda for IA Research
Don Turnbull, Peter Morville, Jamie Bluestein, Keith Instone
Conference description

Reviewed by: Donna Mauer

Keith Instone

Photo credit: Javier Velasco

Don Turnbull introduced the discussion by outlining what they mean by research, providing ideas on possible areas of IA research and discussing the forthcoming Journal of IA. Keith Instone talked about what a research agenda is, comparing it to research agendas for other fields. Jamie Bluestein discussed some of the types of hypertext research that had been undertaken and were still continuing and some of the viewpoints considered at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) hypertext conference.

Peter Morville, who spoke naked (i.e., without using PowerPoint), talked about the uses for research–as a weapon, to ask the big questions and looking at other dimensions of our field. Peter highlighted that there is value not only in having IA research, but also that there is value in the labeling of it as IA research–this label adds authority to the research conducted and the field as a whole. This, to me, was the most important point as I have long felt that there were already many areas of research that informed IA. I think this is the real value in IA research–that it is ‘ours’, focused for our community and labeled as such.

There were no big conclusions from this panel, but it did provide an interesting perspective on the role of research for the IA field.

IA: Not Just for the Web Anymore
Dan Brown, Lou Rosenfeld, James Melzer, James Robertson, Seth Earley
Conference description

Reviewed by: Jorge Arango

This panel brought together four experts in the area of Enterprise Information Architecture to have an open conversation about some of the most relevant issues about this topic today. As moderator, Dan Brown did a great job of keeping things on track, while encouraging audience participation. The four panelists were knowledgeable and held strong points of view, which they presented clearly and passionately. However, I find that panels are most engaging when the panelists disagree somewhat, and that didn’t seem to be the case here.

Some of the topics covered included:

  • Defining enterprise information architecture
  • How to plan and budget for it
  • Which other members of the organization can help
  • How to effect cultural change within the organization
  • Technology issues
  • Tips on how to implement EIAs

As with most panels, these issues were addressed from a variety of perspectives and the conversations were peppered with concrete examples from real-world situations.

One of the panel’s highlights was a James Robertson’s impassioned plea for getting down to basics: helping people accomplish their goals more easily, “cutting the crap”. Throughout the panel, he remained a champion of a more humane EIA, arguing for common sense and a focus on benefiting people (something that can be a challenge in enterprise settings).

Exploring patterns in website content structure
Svetlana Symonenko
Conference description

Reviewed by: Christian Crumlish

Svetlana Symonenko discussed prelimary findings from her research into emerging common practices among large-scale websites. She began with some statistics: 16% of the global population is online, 21% of users find the information they’re looking for more than 80% of the time. Most site visitors like to browse. Even self-declared searchers tend to browse first to look around a new site and get their bearings.

Symonenko’s study arose out of observations she made while working for an information vendor, indexing and abstracting websites. Because she was paid per site, she had an incentive to cover as many sites as possible. In doing so, she learned to recognize some patterns.

Her study is designed to look for signs of “conventionalization” in the observable structure of website content. A website is created by its sponsor with an audience in mind. Together, the sponsor and audience form what she called the website’s discourse community.

Symonenko presented preliminary results from the pilot phase of her study, which examined 15 websites (five each .edu, .com, and .gov). Her approach was to spider the sites “breadth first,” gathering title, link URL, link label, and level of each link going three levels down from the home page, recording only links at the original domain, and excluding dynamic pages.

She used analytical induction and grounded theory to analyze her data, meaning she didn’t apply preexisting categories to her data. She combined synonyms (such as “academics” and “school” at education websites, and various terms for product pages at commercial websites).

Categories found in 80% or more of the sites she studied were considered standard, categories found in 50 to 80% of the sites she considered conventional, and categories found in fewer than 50% of the sites she considered unconventional.

Navigation links comprised 1/5 of all links, with “Home” being the most common (“About” and “Contact” were next). Clear patterns were discerned in the three types of sites examined. A larger follow-up study is underway.

Symonenko feels that there are a lot of guidelines and best practices extant for design but not many for content. She is hoping that her study will make best practices apparent.

An audience member asked if she had done ethnographic research in her user study and whether she trusted users to report accurately on their own browsing and searching habits. She said that in her study users were “forced to browse” and then debriefed, and that she did take what they said at face value.

While the preliminary results from the study were somewhat skimpy and not particularly surprising to anyone who has browsed the web or built large websites, I’m looking forward to the results of the larger study to see whether there really are any de-facto content and navigation standards emerging.

“Is it really possible to re-introduce playfulness and creativity into the serious and stressful environments that seem to be the norm in the corporate world?”

Game Changing: How You Can Transform Client Mindsets Through Play
Jess McMullin
Conference description

Reviewed by: Jorge Arango

The promise of this presentation’s subtitle—transforming client mindsets through play—was very alluring. Is it really possible to re-introduce playfulness and creativity into the serious and stressful environments that seem to be the norm in the corporate world? Apparently I wasn’t the only one enticed by the title to join the fun: Jess was speaking to a standing-room-only audience. The anticipation and excitement in the room was palpable.

Jess McMullin

Photo credit: Javier Velasco

We were not let down. With his trademark humor and intelligence (traits that often go hand-in-hand), Jess presented the conceptual framework that underlies his ideas regarding the use of play as a catalyst for organizational change. These concepts, which can easily become very abstract, were kept clear by the use of very appropriate visuals and amusing metaphors. (At one point he described his game-playing technique as a “Mary Poppins moment”, an allusion to that character’s use of sugar to help children swallow their medicine.)

Jess described some games that he and his team at nForm have used successfully in the past, and even invited us to play one of them (“MetaMemes”). Unfortunately, the size of the audience and the limited time available muffled the impact of this exercise. However, including a game as part of the presentation allowed us a glimpse of the possibilities—and sheer fun value—of play in a professional environment.

Game Changing: How You Can Transform Client Mindsets Through Play, continued

Reviewed by: Donna Maurer

Jess presented an incredibly useful and entertaining session on “Game playing: Changing client mindsets through play.”

The primary reasons for game playing are to communicate in a different way with clients and to create effective shared references via shared stories or experiences.

Some of the ways to create games are to modify existing activities, use existing games and formats, create new games, and use improvization exercises. He pointed out that you don’t need to call them games, but can use them within existing activities and processes.

We played a simple game with a neighbor: Using two of the following ideas (drawn from a card deck), we had to come up with an idea or concept to better connect children and a financial institution: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, anti-aging gene, gross out, connection, swarm intelligence (off you go, brainstorm…)

The session was well presented and entertaining and a great one to do just before heading into the IA Slam.

Architecting self-organizing learning communities
Faison “Bud” Gibson
Conference description

Reviewed by: Christian Crumlish

Bud Gibson, who teaches programming to business school students, presented about two-way learning communities using Web 2.0. He started off with a few observations: Teaching is broadcasting. No information gets back to the broadcaster and only partial info to audience. He hypothesized that collaboration would yield richer information for everyone involved, but two-way flow is hard for a person (the teacher) to organize, so the solution must be self-organizing. People need to feel they are in a shared space to collaborate.

Bud experimented with text-only software for collaboration/sharing. He wanted to use a standards-based approach (using RSS and HTML) to avoid lock-in. He wondered if people would want to share. The guinea pigs were a class of business school students who were very competitive. Given the choice people will only do what provides value back to them
The first time he tried this, he set his students up with Typepad blogs and the re-aggregated the feeds at a single site (one-stop shopping), making all of the blog feeds available in the form of an OPML list. He also invited “guests” via syndication, including Microsoft blogging evangelist Robert Scoble (Scobleizer blog) and Asa Dotzler (Firefox) as examplars. Their blog feeds were included in the syndicated mix and OPML list.

The blog entries were served up in a River-of-News style aggregator, showing the last seven days’ entries. He required his students to post two times a week, and he did see some conversations emerging. People would comment on topics on their own blogs and use trackback to thread the conversation together.

The first time the system ran on a backend provided by a host called MYST. The server farm ran on J2EE with Java servlets and a SOAP interface to a Java API, with lightweight interfaces using XML over HTTP (REST), RSS, and HTML. In the end, Bud determined that this model was heavier than necessary, involving a layered enterprise architecture. He later re-hacked the backend with Perl and PHP and found that the lightweight approach was better.

To ensure participation, Bud based 20% of his students’ grades on participating. Any posts were acceptable as long as they were class-related. He did not judge the posts in terms of content, spelling, etc.


Photo credit: Jorge Arango

He also suggested topics to post, such as problems the class was working on and proposed solutions. After the class was over and the grades had been handed out, Bud surveyed the students and 26 out of 32 responded. About 21% checked the blogs once a day or more. Just over 40% checked twice a week. Another 25% checked occasionally and about 12% checked rarely.

Most students were unwilling to expose themselves in this way, which Bud attributed to their being “status conscious.” Some students wanted their blog entries taken down when the class was over. He did allow the students to be semi-anonymous, choosing Internet handles, although they were expected to let their classmates know who they were. Bud himself used the nickname “Blogonaut” for the class.

About 20% blogged two times a week or more. About 55% blogged twice a week (as required), 12% blogged several times a month, and about 5% blogged just a few times during the semester.

When surveyed to find out why they had blogged, 68% said to understand concepts, 75% to get feedback, 50% to clarify ideas, 41% to hear multiple perspectives, 68% as a source of technical experites and 9% for other reasons.

Students were more interested in writing than responding. Bud blogged about good blog entries by students on his own class blog, sent trackback links, and pointed to good examples in class to model behavior.

The tagging permitted the students to easily create self-organizing categories. He noticed evidence of “follow the leader” tagging, including idiosyncratic tags, such as one called OpinionSlug which was pioneered by one student to tag an opinion post and was adopted by the entire community.

The most popular tags were, in descending order:

  • technology
  • opinionslug
  • classquestions
  • blogging
  • microsoft
  • XML
  • blog
  • remixing

He noted that opinionslug and classquestions were “type” facet categories. HE wasn’t sure you could say that blog and blogging were synonyms the way they were used here.

There were also a lot of singleton tags.

In the future Bud would like to analyze the spread of memes from individual origination to group adoption, and the way tags are used as social cues. He encountered many usability issues for participants, including the fact that it was hard to type the tags in the WordPress interface.

Bud recommended taking a “guerilla approach” to such experiments to deal with sometimes restrictive university bureaucracies. Asked what he learned from this approach, Bud said he learned to have a light hand in moderating the discussion.
The lesson I drew from this talk was that creating feedback loops and a shared space for conversation can enhance the learning experience of a group of people and represents a step forward from the one-to-many teacher-to-student broadcast model.

Selling IA – Getting Execs to say Yes
Samantha Starmer
Conference description

Reviewed by: Jorge Arango

Much in the corporate world boils down to one question: “how can we get the most bang for our buck here?” As any information architect knows, IA can be a powerful tool to help businesses create value and reduce inefficiencies. However, this value is sometimes difficult to explain in terms that are understandable to business folks, and unfortunately many information architects are ill prepared for this task. The inevitable result is IA teams that are either underfunded, ineffective, or both.

Samantha’s talk attempted to fill this educational void by presenting a series of recommendations on how to become more effective IA sales agents. Wisely, she kicked things off by exposing us to our own biases against the concept of “sales:” she projected a photo of a sleazy used car salesman, and asked how many of us associated this image with the concept of sales. Many hands went up.

We were presented with the “top five recommendations for selling IA”:

  • Show the problem – do your research beforehand, and present it effectively
  • Benefit the bottom line – learn to sound comfortable discussing return on investment
  • Manage the politics – pay attention to the organization’s culture
  • Don’t promise a silver bullet – be clear about costs and benefits
  • Pay attention to style – specifically, presentation style: tell stories, know your audience, etc.

Many of these concepts will be familiar to anyone who’s been in any type of managerial position in a large company. This, added to the presentation’s reliance on highly structured “bullet” slides, could have made the talk somewhat tedious. However, Samantha enlivened things greatly with candid examples culled from her recent experiences at successfully funding her IA team at Microsoft.

The International information architecture Slam
Eric L. Reiss, Matthew Fetchko, Chris Chandler, Lynn Boyden
Conference description

Reviewed by: Fred Beecher

The IA slam was awesome! As a first-time Summit attendee and a (obviously) first time slammer, I have to say that I had an absolute blast and definitely plan on slamming again!

When we arrived, we were handed manila envelopes that we were not to open until told to do so. I managed to comply, despite the temptation not to. After a few minutes, the panel briefly described the rules of the slam. We were to be separated into groups of 8 and we would have 45 minutes to respond to a proposal from a hypothetical client. This response would need to be in the form of a “big idea” with supporting documentation. In this case, the documentation we needed to produce was a user flow, data architecture, and a project plan. In 45 minutes.

Eric Reiss

Photo credit: Javier Velasco

After their explanation of the logistics of the slam, the panel assumed their role as the client. They gave a presentation about their company, its background, and their current business goals. This company, led by “A. A. Haffner,” obviously drew heavily upon the history and business model of the Playboy empire. In our scenario, “Bon Vivant” was a company that had its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but business slumped in the ‘80s and they were forced to close their clubs. In the ‘90s, the online channel allowed them to recover, and now their online brand is well-established. What they wanted to do, they said, was to re-open the clubs and integrate the online experience with the offline. Our job, they said, was present to them a strategy for accomplishing this goal.

Team Red presented first, and as they began to discuss their project plan, my heart sunk. I realized we’d completely neglected that part of the proposal. Ah well, Team Blue shall prevail another day. The presentations were all very good and represented some quality thinking. But after all the teams had presented, I had it in my mind that Team Red or Team Green would take the glory. Of course, it would have been Team Blue had we bothered to make a project plan. Ahem.

The next day at lunch, the winner was announced. Team Green! The crowd broke out into a round of enthusiastic applause, and Team Green certainly deserved it! They got medals too (also well-deserved), and I couldn’t fail to notice that the individual members kept them on all day. But hey, they deserve their bragging rights!

The International information architecture Slam, continued

Reviewed by: Donna Maurer

The IA Slam is one of my favorite parts of Summit. In this three-hour session, participants are grouped (randomly) into teams of eight, given a design problem to solve within 45 minutes and later present their solution to the audience. The design problem is presented as a story and supported with richly detailed materials.


Photo credit: Erin Malone

The idea is always outrageous, and this year was no different. Bon Vivant (loosely modeled on Playboy) wished to take a new direction into exclusive clubs for high-income professionals. The challenge was to offer a strongly customizable and customized client experience and integrate the online and offline aspects of the clubs. The team had to come up with a “big idea” and supporting material such as use cases, functions, and project plans.

This year’s winning team’s was Team Green (James Kalbach, Matthew Frederick, Alecia Kozbial, Eva Miller, Blair Neufeld, Sarah Dilling, Kathy Mirescu, Michael Kopcsak). Their big idea was “It’s who you know and where you go!” The judges awarded it because it had:

  • A “social sliding scale” for privacy, so a client could disclose personal information according to her level of comfort.
  • Initial user flow for clients of BOTH sexes
  • Effective presentation style and very effective use of time limits and timekeeper
  • Phased rollout with each phase clearly identified
  • Their big picture of data architecture had our clients in the center of the diagram.

Thanks again to Eric Reiss, Lynn Boyden, Chris Chandler, and Matthew Fetchko for running the slam. I can’t wait to see what you come up with in Vegas!

Re-invoking Culture and Context in Digital Libraries and Museums
Ramesh Srinivasan
Conference description

Reviewed by: David Sturtz

Ramesh Srinivasan described his recent work with several Native American reservations on TribalPeace.org. This digital library system was designed for sharing media with the goal of re-linking groups that were physically disconnected. Ramesh noted the unique requirements of systems for communities like this due to the great emphasis placed on storytelling. The digital library system must allow multiple accounts and viewpoints to coexist.

To organize the collection, he has facilitated the creation of “fluid ontologies.” These structures encompass the local culture’s evolving self-understanding and identity. Working within the community, he sets in motion the construction of an “ethnomethodological architecture.” Building on the ethnomethodology approach to sociology, this process relies on the actual members of a social group to understand and formalize the relationships and patterns of their society.

Ramesh reminded the audience that both this fluid ontology and externally developed and applied classification systems are boundary objects. As such, they include or exclude members of particular groups. While a locally created ontology results in greater engagement of the community and more complete description of items, an external classification system allows greater interoperability with other repositories, and improved findability in a larger context. Balancing these conflicting demands is central to Ramesh’s research, and results in interesting insights. As he noted, “tension between multiple perspectives allows dialogue to emerge.”

Intranets BOF
James Robertson

Reviewed by: Pat Barford

Working on an intranet then meeting people who do the same at the Summit struck me as somewhat like having a drunken uncle. Just about everyone has one, but no one talks about it until one day you bump into others with the same problem. The dam breaks and you can’t believe you’re actually sharing the same stories. And it’s hard to stop. The Intranets BOF was something like that.

Eric Reiss

Photo credit: Liz Danzico

More than two-dozen people showed up to share their stories, their problems and look for answers. For almost two hours, people put their problems on the table for discussion, feedback and suggestions. James Robertson of Step Two Designs played host, much as he had the day before during his Strategic Intranet Planning workshop. There was no shortage of talk, problems, or willingness to share the pain and pleasure of working on intranets. From those in the process of setting up an open source intranet to others dealing with hundreds of thousands of pages and employees speaking multiple languages in dozens of countries; people were there to talk, listen and learn as much as they could.

It seems that intranets are an area with few, if any vehicles for communication among those working on them. For many in the group, it seemed almost a relief to be able to talk with people doing the same job. One thing that became apparent is that intranet IAs are looking for a forum to share information as well as pose questions to others in the business. It was rumored that Yahoo! Groups has a little used intranet UX group that we should consider reviving. What happens there remains to be seen. The session wrapped up well after its allotted hour. I couldn’t help get the feeling that this was just the beginning of a whole other area of IA ripe for exploration, communication, and networking.

Business & Design BOF (Or, Up, Up, and Away)
Jeff Lash
Conference description

Reviewed by: Chris Baum

Initially, the Business and Design BOF seemed more like oil and water rather than a flock–firms and consultants trying to figure out how to sell their services; internal employees looking for ways to innovate from within.

Then, Harry Max reminded us why we inhabit the same professional space–it’s all about consultative selling. No matter the size of your organization, the project, or your position, in the end you have to sell your ideas and methods.

All folks who practice IA, regardless of their title or type of organization, deal from the same deck. Over the course of the discussion, a few tenets emerged. If we learn to ask the right questions, and really listen to the answers, our practices will help businesses better understand the problem they are trying to solve, find a path to resolution that works for their customers, and make the right choices when allocating resources.
We also need to be aware of the business climate when we are trying to sell our ideas. Pure metrics (ROI, NPV) are most important in times of contraction, when resources are scarce. One participant had a great idea for a “revenue-generating machine” back in 2000, but could not sell it because Silicon Valley was in cost-cutting mode.

Livia Labate deals with this problem by mapping her projects to both numbers and the soft measures (customer satisfaction), so she is ready with ammunition no matter the environment.

After the slow start, the session acted as more of a showcase of the various perspectives, in the end overlaying these approaches in a way that showed us standing in the same place looking out in different. One participant protested our pragmatism, but in the end I hope he realizes that we are in the midst of an attempt to turn businesses into the art he so passionately desires.

Posters and reception

Reviewed by: Jess McMullin

Poster session

Photo credit: Erin Malone

Coming after a full day of sessions, I started out tired and hungry. But walking in the entrance, the poster session immediately set the right tone, mixing the chance to browse displays of cutting-edge thinking combined with the opportunity to socialize with cutting edge thinkers. Held in a huge ballroom, the space was open enough to circulate by the posters on the perimeter, or take a discussion to the center of the room.

Poster session

Photo credit: Erin Malone

The overall quality of the posters was high, and I found myself wishing I had more time to digest it all. I started at the back by the bar, and didn’t make it even halfway around the room–every few steps another poster full of smart thinking punctuated my meander, challenging me to think even more. And you know what? I did – the takeaway for me was that great ideas energize, and I left renewed and invigorated, looking forward to more from the rest of the Summit.

Of the posters I managed to catch, three still stand out in my memory:

  • Billie Mandel’s Enterprise IA Toolkit Under the Hood
    Whimsical and profound, all at the same time. Billie tackles the journey of EIA effectiveness.
  • Stephen Anderson’s Sorting, Organzing, and Labeling the Experience
    Incredibly elegant visualization of experience. Gorgeous. I’m printing my own poster-size version.
  • BranchLogic’s and Yahoo’s Yahoo! Network Diagram
    The largest poster I saw, showing all the elements of the Yahoo! Network. Impressive not just for its sheer size, but for Yahoo! to share it. Fantastic example of a company being open and raising the bar for everyone in industry to share their own experience.

The above posters, and many more, can be found at the IA Summit site.

Reviews of other conference sessions are available by day: