Leaving Las Vegas

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“Now here it is: four years later. We are part of the landscape and a resource that is often referenced. Everywhere I go, folks refer to an article they read on Boxes and Arrows. We are expected to be here.”As we near the fourth anniversary of the crazy idea that Christina had, I find that it’s time to look to other priorities in my life.

When Christina first approached me four years ago, it was to be a writer for this new secret project of hers. I was honored and of course immediately said yes. Within a month of that request, she and George Olsen approached me about being co-editor, and with that I was pulled into the fold. Several people were working furiously trying to craft and shape and design a place that information architects could have a voice. This was to be a place to share and learn and not be encumbered by the baggage of academic language or obscurity. This was to be a place of practice, craft, and open arms as we sought to find our home in the greater universe of the user experience realm.

George and I worked diligently to define types of articles and features we wanted—what would be regular columns and what would be monthly features. We aspired to a lofty goal of two articles a week plus a monthly “Welcome.” On a volunteer basis with two editors, that was lofty indeed. We made lists of people whose writings – from articles, books, blogs, and list postings – that we liked, admired, or just plain suspected would be thought-provoking or controversial. We approached people to write for us.

When we launched at the 2002 IA Summit a few months later, it was with a full stable of articles, a planned calendar, and a queue full of works-in-progress. At the Summit, Christina said, “I’ll be happy if we last six months.” Little did we know. It was a few months later, when George resigned, that I took on the mantle of editor in chief.

Now here it is: four years later. We are part of the landscape and a resource that is often referenced. Everywhere I go, folks refer to an article they read on Boxes and Arrows. We are expected to be here. The last few years has seen a dot-com bust and gradual rebuilding. Folks have been out of work, freelanced, became entrepreneurs, and finally joined staffs and rebuilt organizations in-house. This cycle has also affected Boxes and Arrows. As a volunteer organization, we have seen the cycle of authors, of volunteers, and of readers rise and fall as people became employed again and became engaged in a myriad of activities. The landscape, too, has gotten more crowded as more people have found their voice to share. Yet, despite the pressures of jobs and life, we continue to have a flow of great people interested in writing. People want to share their experiences and their practice. I am continually amazed at how open and giving this community is.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting some great folks and of working with very dedicated people. George Olsen, Ryan Olshavsky, Brenda Janish all gave their time and effort. Our current editorial staff—Dorelle Rabinowitz, Liz Danzico, Javier Velasco, Jim Kalbach, Jorge Arango, Elisa Miller, Pat Barford—all eager and working behind the scenes to keep the knowledge flowing. Our copywriters Lara Ferguson McNamara, Emily Wilska, and Kirsten Swearingen always ready at a moment’s notice to turn something around in 24 hours. Thanks.

It is with this reflection that I announce my resignation as editor-in-chief and the appointment of new leadership. It is time for new voices and fresh eyes.

I am confident that Boxes and Arrows is going to be in great hands and am proud to pass the baton to Liz Danzico as the new editor-in-chief. And Javier Velasco has accepted the first ever managing editor role.

I’d like to thank Christina for the opportunity that she gave me—without really knowing me at the time, and for our readers for being there and continuing to come back.

Most of all I’d like to thank all the authors that I have worked with over the years. Some of the work was hard (you know who you are) and some of it was easy, but because of all of it, I am a smarter person because of what you have shared.

Thanks for the privilege of working for you.

Erin Malone

Erin Malone is currently Director of Design, Platform group at Yahoo! Her team is currently responsible for developing tools, brand guidelines, cross-network research and a knowledge management system for Yahoo! Design Standards and Best Practices for the entire User Experience group. Before Yahoo!, she was a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online) and worked on such applications as AIM, WinAmp, AOL Radio, AOL Media Player, AOL Wallet, My AOL, various Community products and other things deemed important to the company. Prior to AOL, she was Creative Director at AltaVista, where she managed a team of Information Architects and Designers working on the AltaVista Live portal and various other web applications. Other work has included being the first and only IA/Interaction Designer at Zip2, working on the first generation Adobe web site, redesigning the San Jose Repertory Theatre web site, as well as designing GUI for several projects at Eastman Kodak company and early AOL Greenhouse partners. She has plied her trade in interactive and digital information spaces, including the web since 1993. Prior to that she worked in some crazy field called Advertising where she was indoctrinated into the world of Brand and Marketing.

Erin has a BFA in Communication Design from East Carolina University, Greenville NC and an MFA in Graphic/Information Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY.

As an editor she spends a lot of time reading these articles and wrangling writers. In her spare time, she cycles, takes a lot of photographs, plays guitar and keeps multiple websites including The Dr. Leslie Project a web interpretation of her Masters Thesis; a Photolog and Design Writings, in which she talks about Design, Design History, Information Architecture, Design Theory and Design Criticism.

Goodbye 2004, Hello to Another Good Year

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“I’m so very grateful to you, dear readers and writers, because day after day you make me smarter.”–Christina Wodtke”At the end of 2004, we are all looking back at the year and taking stock of where things are, how the year has passed and what we made of it. I am thankful for this past year–I changed jobs (moved to Yahoo!) and am happier than I have been over the past three years, I have expanded my photography explorations, I trained for and completed my first century cycle race and through it all Boxes and Arrows has been a constant.

Boxes and Arrows has gone through some ups and downs this year as well. Christina and I decided to ask our readers to help us redesign, and we had a lot of fun reviewing submissions from around the world. Look for a redesign in mid-2005. We have also been researching a new CMS system, looking for something that is geared towards periodical publishing with editors and multiple levels of administration and publishing. If you have ideas, we would love to hear them.

The end of this year also sees Brenda Janish retiring as editor. Brenda, who started as a copyeditor at the very beginning before we launched and evolved into a full editor soon after, helped me carry the editorial load for about a year before our other great editors joined us. Brenda is still going to be copyediting, but we will miss her editorial vision. Thanks for everything Brenda.

With Brenda’s retirement, we would like to announce the addition of Molly Wright Steenson as a new editor on our staff. Welcome Molly.

I want to take this opportunity to thank our other editors, Liz Danzico and Dorelle Rabinowitz–both of whom also changed jobs this year–as did Christina. As you can tell, it has been a bit tumultuous for the staff this year and through it all we still continue to publish. Thanks go out as well to our copyeditors who help support the editorial staff and our great technical guru, Kirk Franklin.

Most of all, I want to thank all of our authors–for your patience, for your continued interest in writing for us, even when we get busy and take forever to respond. Thanks for the great things I continue to learn and for keeping us honest.

A final thanks goes to you, the reader, without whom we would not exist. You keep us going.

Erin Malone
Editor in chief

Time for reflection, new beginnings, and giving thanks

Ah the holidays. Time for reflection, new beginnings and giving thanks. Since I recently made a fresh new career move, and in the process moved far away from most of my family and friends, I’ve been thinking lately about what’s important to me and what I’m thankful for–and Boxes and Arrows is up there on my list. Not just because of the thought-provoking, career-helping, and all-around interesting content, but also because it’s given me the chance to serve as an editor.

So first of all, thanks to Boxes and Arrows for letting me come on board. I wanted the chance to give back to this community–but instead I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

I’ve been an editor now for over a year, and I’ve had the chance to work with many remarkable people–some have shared my passion for user experience design and some have shared their unique points of views, and I’ve learned from them all. Another common trait is their patience–sometimes trying to fit B&A into my overwhelming works schedule leaves many author’s articles in my to-do pile too long. Thanks to each of you.

At each industry event I’ve attended someone recognizes my name from B&A and I’ve been able to have another conversion about Information Architecture or Interaction design or Big IA vs Little IA. Thanks to those folks.

Since my world is one big six-degrees of separation game, I wouldn’t be at Yahoo! without B&A either. I’m thankful to all the Yahoos who welcomed me as if they knew me, especially to my UED team, and to those people who said nice things about me so I could come here.

I’m grateful and impressed by all the people who entered the redesign contest, coming up with ideas to improve something we all care so much about.

Remembering why I made the choice to devote my time to this “peer-written journal” and all the benefits I’ve received from that choice make me extremely thankful. Are there any other wannabe volunteers out there who’d like to get back much more then they put in?

Dorelle Rabinowitz

Authors + context = happiness

Reflecting back on my work with Boxes and Arrows in 2004, I must admit that I’m most thankful for the exchage of ideas I get to have with the authors. Exchanging ideas on big-picture IA concepts, reader needs, as well as the best way to hypenate a title: I look forward to it all with every first draft I receive.

I suppose that I’m most thankful, then, to be part of the context-making. Boxes and Arrow’s shiny and sometimes controversial outside and the messy and industrious inside–to me, this wholeness is the real context of the article. Further, helping to publish an issue of Boxes and Arrows is about creating context for our readers. We work to create meaningful combinations through the juxtaposition of articles. And I like to get involved in the working insides where the author-editor context is (Not to be overlooked is the discussion section of the site where authors, readers, editors, and other surprise guests create their own new contexts.).

So thanks to all the authors I’ve worked with in 2004. I’ve been flattered to be on the inside as part of your process: Nancy Broden, Jeff English, Alex Kirtland, Brian Krause, Marisa Gallagher, Victor Lombardi, Max Lord, Laura Quinn, Tanya Rabourn, Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, Chris Ricci, Jason Withrow, Jonathan Woytek, Liam Friedman (not yet published), Maggie Law (not yet published), John Rhodes (not yet published), Andrea Streight (not yet published).

Liz Danzico

Have Yourself a Merry Little Fourth Quarter

Here we are again, at the end of another year. This is the time of year when Erin likes to remind me when we started our little magazine, I said I would be happy if it lasted sixth months. Well, I would have been, so you can imagine my delight that we are entering our fourth year of publishing articles for the professional designer.

Cooper chartWhen we started B&A, all the magazines I could find were either full of beginner articles on design, or academic articles, accessible only by experts. I had Inmates Are Running the Asylum open on my desk as I contemplated this phenomenon, and saw the chart where Cooper illustrates how designers design for beginners and experts, but the vast majority of users are actually intermediates. It struck me that that was true of my experience as a reader, and I set out with many of my friends to try to create a magazine we would want to read. Since then a number of other websites have begun providing more advanced discussions of design, but B&A has managed to continue to attract smart people who both write articles and then enrich them further with smart commentary. I’m amazed and delighted every other week when I see what the Boxes and Arrows community (along with its caretakers, the editors) have brought into the world.

I’m so very grateful to you, dear readers and writers, because day after day you make me smarter. When I think a realm is done and buried, you surprise me with something new–a perspective, a technique, a persuasive argument–I hadn’t thought of, and once again I feel the pleasant sensation of the cogs in my head turning. I consider my small work of sending out updates, paying for hosting, and dusting out the comment spam as a miniscule price to pay for the intelligence shown here on these pages. As publisher I feel humble, because I know all I did was open a door to all the insight that was already there.

And so I thank you all, and hope you will stay with us as we embark on our biggest adventure yet–taking B&A to the next level with a new platform, a new architecture, and a new design.

I hug you all.

Christina Wodtke
Boxes and Arrows

Redesigning Boxes and Arrows

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“If the devil is in the details, it was very clear that angels live there also.”

For a while we at B&A have been feeling unsatisfied with our software and website. It was perfect when we were young turks, but now that we have a larger body of articles, increasingly richer material, and a growing audience, we realized we need something different, something that will tell the world we are a magazine on the rise. We could have redesigned ourselves, but we felt our community is one of our biggest assets, so we turned to them to help us envision our next generation of the website.

We got many entrants, often fascinating, sometimes surprising, sometimes strange, all intriguing. Some folks ignored our request to not design in the blog mode. We can only assume that this design is so prevalent that it has embedded itself in people’s minds. Others think of us as a blog, because we are on Movable Type’s excellent software. But we are not a blog: we embrace multiple points of view from multiple authors, we are edited, and topical. All we share with blogs, other than software, is chronological organization. And that has led us to the desire to really stand tall with other magazines who put the same editorial love into their bodies of content as we do. And by re-designing we wanted to strongly message “we are a magazine.”

One thing we were deeply surprised by, was how often a design might be overall excellent (or sometimes mediocre), and then would have a tiny corner of extraordinariness. Sometimes it was something as small as the treatment of the swag, or an approach to a navigation scheme, or the text resizing tools. If the devil is in the details, it was very clear that angels live there also. Often we found ourselves wishing we could Chinese menu across multiple designers, because there were so many different lovely moments.

Our judges lent a fascinating insight into the designs as well—an expert on usability would opine on the IA, or an IA remark on beauty. We may specialize, but the gestalt of a design is what we all respond to. We also asked our staff to add their two cents, because the folks who use their precious spare time to make this magazine great, could not be ignored.

So what’s next, now that we’ve got our winners?

Well, none of the designs are perfect in the first shot for our needs. This can’t be surprising to anyone; a great design always comes from conversations between the client and the designer. So we’ll move forward, and ask our winner to work with us to get to the right instantiation of the design, as we continue to evaluate our content management system and publishing engine.

Don’t expect this slow caterpillar to be a butterfly overnight, but do expect a new look in 2005…

So here they are, our winners!

The Winning Entry

The winner! And champion of battle Boxes and Arrows!
by Alex Chang and Matt Titchener from April3rd.com.

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The judges said “This is a clean, light design that works well. Color and type are used to reinforce visual hierarchy in a meaningful way. Screen real estate is allocated in a way to support hierarchy as well.”

“This one uses the structure of the grid and palette to its advantage. It is not very efficient with its use of space. I like the effort at leaving some breathing room on the page”

The first prize winner will receive a set of professional books from the fine publishers at PeachPit Press and software from Adobe!


We’ll be contacting the winner to begin work on refining the design to give you a new and exciting Boxes and Arrows!

Runners Up

The silver goes to Sarah Doody

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Judges say “The colors are nice and unique. It’s very differentiable and, at the same time, feels very professional without feeling too academic.”

And finally, the bronze goes to the design team at Behavior Design

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This winner was not in the original final running, because of its blog-based design. However, it was so lovely and well executed, it caught the judges eye and pulled ahead to grab the bronze medal!

And special mentions go to Brandon Satanek
Not only did he submit two entries, but they both were in our top 5 favorites.

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A final honorary “best alternative to lorem ipsum” which had us giggling everytime we reviewed the comps, goes to William Lamson.

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We give this design a special mention because of the clever titles and lead-ins used in the layouts. We felt the judges would enjoy them as much as we did.

Overall Thanks

Most of all we want to thank all the folks who took the time to design a new look for Boxes and Arrows, and who waited patiently while we made our decisions. This was an extremely difficult task. I think we were all surprised at how hard it would be to make a final call.

All were wonderful—check the full set of entries out for yourself!

We especially want to give a special thanks to our judges, who took time out of their busy schedules to help us choose our winner.

Thanks all!

Redesign Submissions Closed

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REDESIGN UPDATE Submissions are closed and we are no longer accepting entries.
Thanks to all the folks who worked hard to submit a new visual vision for Boxes and Arrows and for all the great questions and discussion about the redesign.

Our final confirmed judges panel: Hillman Curtis, Katherine Jones, Andrei Herasimchuk, John Rhodes, Lou Rosenfeld, Nathan Shedroff, and Jared Spool.

We received over thirty entries from more than five countries. Christina Wodtke and Erin Malone will be spending the next two and half weeks reviewing each entry individually and prepping the entries for our judges.

Judging will begin the first week or so of September (specific date to be determined based on various travel schedules) and we will announce the winner and post the top 5 runner-ups on the site the end of September / beginning of October.

The first prize winner will receive a set of professional books from the fine publishers at PeachPit Press and (this just in) software from Adobe (exact titles and platform tbd)!

Boxes and Arrows Redesign

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UPDATED This just in: Hillman Curtis joins the panel of judges. The entry deadline has been extended until August 15th, 2004. We compiling put together a crack judging team and have currently confirmed: Andrei Herasimchuk, John Rhodes, Lou Rosenfeld, Nathan Shedroff, and Jared Spool.

When Boxes and Arrows first launched in 2001, we were blessed with the design from the talented Gabe Zentall. B&A has been growing and changing and evolving since then, and it’s time to freshen up a bit. But because we love the vibrant community that has made us—from the articles to the amazing discussion in the comments, we’d like to go one step further. We’d like to ask you to redesign us. Continue reading Boxes and Arrows Redesign

Terrible Twos

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Little Boxia has just turned two! Look how proud she stands, barely wobbling at all! See how she toddles around, smearing food on the walls! So independent, so curious and wait… did she just say “no!”? No, no, no! Here they come… the terrible twos.

As we celebrate Boxes and Arrows’ second birthday with pride, I find myself looking at our profession as well. As a manager of designers and as a member of the community, I am struck time and time again at how timid and uncertain so many designers are. It doesn’t matter if they are information architects, graphic designers, or interaction designers; a pervasive feeling of fraud floats through the air. “What if they don’t believe me,” “I need data,” “What have I got to offer?” Around dear Boxia’s birth, Jesse James Garrett accused the community of dressing up in lab coats to try to pass for a professional. To this day I see designers reaching for data like a thug reaches for a baseball bat before entering a street fight. The research they want to do is not to learn, but to win arguments. This is, of course, bad for design and bad for research.

How do you become confident? How do you stand up in a room with senior vice presidents, directors of marketing and …shudder… engineers and explain why you didn’t color in the napkin-wireframe they drew over lunch, but rather, that you decided to design? You have to make sure you are as professional as the professional you are.

  • Know your shit. Make sure you have the education you need. This is a combination of school learning, keeping up-to-date with periodicals and books on your subject of expertise, and real-world experience. This is probably the toughest for young designers. The solution though, is to read like a crazy person, talk to every senior designer you know about the work you are doing and learn from their experience, and work as much as you can, through freelancing and volunteering.
  • Think it through. If you haven’t thought through every bit of your design, you’ll get a kick-in-the-rear when you present your ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to be hyper-analytical while you design, but it does mean you set aside an hour or two before you present and do a heuristic analysis of your own work (or get a peer to do it). Walk through the entire solution and look for flaws. Categorize them into:
    • “I will fix”
    • “I won’t fix because…”
    • “It could be a bad solution, but I don’t think so because…”
    • “I don’t know”

    Now when these issues are brought up in the presentation, you won’t trip up, you won’t lose your confidence. You’ll calmly explain that “Yes, very perceptive, I have so and so working on it,” “I’d like to, but this is the phase one solution, it’s all we have time for,” “I do see your point, but have you considered this?” and your secret weapon, “You know, I’ve been pondering over that—what do you think?” Why is this the secret weapon? Nothing shows confidence more than the willingness to admit you don’t have all the answers. Admitting you don’t have an answer always trumps bullshit.

    By treating the folks you are presenting to as members of your team—equals with unique insights that match your own—you reach two goals: ending conflict while shoring up your own sense of place in the project and your value therein. You also message that to the other members of the team.

This is my final bit of advice:

  • Psych yourself up. I’m really not an affirmations type of gal, I’m more of a “Let’s go get beer and a pizza and see if there is some brilliant insight that comes from sausage and mushrooms.” Maybe it’s my years in California, but before a really tough meeting, I’ll sit quietly at my desk for five minutes and say to myself “You know your sht, you’ve done your homework, you’ve been doing this long enough, you are a smart cookie, you won’t say anything dumb, you will listen closely, everyone in there is on your side, we all want the same thing, you will be great. You will be great. You will be great.”

Sounds goofy, I know. I hope my family back in Iowa never reads this. But it works. You have to believe in yourself before you can get anyone else to.

At the IA summit I stated in the five-minute madness, “You win more arguments with will than with data” and it’s true. It’s all about giving up the lab coats and showing off our own design raiment.

So what has this got to do with our little Boxia’s birthday?

As a human, you enter your second year of life becoming more confident. Less obedient. More freethinking (as well as freestanding) and you often tell people “no.”

“No” takes some courage to say. It means you have realized your world view is as valid as your parents. And it’s a critically important moment in anyone’s life, be it B&A, the design profession or your own life.

Boxes and Arrows will continue standing tall, fleshing out ideas, not talking down to folks, exploring new approaches—even if unpopular, and saying “no” when saying “no” is the right thing to do.

We recommend you do so too.

*At the summit each year, the conference closes by letting anyone walk up to the microphone speak their mind. It’s called “five minute madness” and this year it included a woman singing “You Light Up My Life”, a man praising his Treo as an example of a future without limits, and another who lambasted the SIGIA list as a blight on the firmament. Madness indeed.

Planning your future

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“It’s not the plan that is important, it’s the planning.”

—Graeme Edwards

I have been thinking a lot about career growth lately, and as a manager, have been generally concerned with making sure there are growth opportunities for my staff, regardless of their level or the point they are at in their career.

This often means rearranging teams so that a staff member might be stretched to grow in a new skill—as a designer, as a mentor and leader, or just in a new domain (i.e., moving from a music product to a mail product). In addition, I am always looking for networking, conference, and classroom opportunities that would benefit not only me, but my staff as well.

But not everyone has a manager that is concerned about her career growth, and there are even times when day-to-day work concerns are a priority and career growth needs are far in the back of my mind. As a matter of fact, for most of my career, I never had anyone watching out for me. For the first part of my career, I don’t even think I thought much about my long-term career. I just seemed to happen into new opportunities that taught me new skills and kept me growing and challenged. But there was no plan, no goal other than to stay challenged.

The point is, in the big picture, no one is going to look after your career for you, but you.

A few years ago, a manager of mine gave me the assignment to work on a five-year career plan. I had never created a career plan before (not even to plot out goals for the coming year), so I was completely unprepared for how and why I should do this. Luckily, she shared her own plan as a guide, but I still agonized through the exercise. Over time I have become aware of how important this was for me to do. Looking and assessing where I was at the time, really thinking about what I wanted to be doing in the future, gave me the tools to make the right decisions to make things happen.

After I was done, I realized that most of what I put down for a five-year plan could be done in a year. But it took writing it down to see that and to make it happen. This also was a good tool for working with my boss to craft training and work opportunities for me to meet my goals. I also made sure that these goals included life and personal goals as well as career goals. The older I get the more I realize that these are intertwined and success in one space brings success to others. Work/Life balance matters.

In an effort to make this anecdote meaningful to you, I’d like to share the steps and some resources I used to help me prepare my five-year goals.

The Template:

  1. Your Name
  2. Today’s Date
    This is important as you reflect back on this document. This will become a touchstone for your growth and a reminder of who you were as you look back at what was important to you in this point in time.
  3. 3–6 Months
    • Start small.
    • Think about short-term goals that are easily achieved but will also help move you towards the longer-term goals.
    • Include some tangible goals (i.e., ship a product that I acted as lead designer for).
  4. 6–12 Months
    • Start thinking bigger here—this is planning for a year out.
    • What new skills do you want to learn?
    • What new ideas do you want to share with others?
    • What changes do you want to make? Put them down here along with the steps needed to take to make them happen.
  5. Beyond 12 Months
    • Capture specific plans that you know may take more than a year to get to or accomplish. For me, it was to work on my Dr. Leslie book. I discussed the idea with a writing partner 3 years ago, but it is only now coming to fruition with an actual proposal in hand and a potential publisher.
    • Be realistic but not afraid to reach. Visualize success in areas you may have little control over. Don’t be afraid to write down a desired goal that may be a stretch.
  6. Longer-term Goals
    • This is the area to think out for the next 3–5 years, including life beyond the company or situation you are currently in. For me, I listed “teaching again” as a goal. This reminds me that I want to do this and I need to make certain decisions and changes in order to make it happen.

      If I decide at a later time, that I don’t really want to do this, I should remove it off the plan.

  7. Opportunities to Explore at Your Company
    • List all the training and coaching opportunities relevant and currently available at your company.
    • Note relationships that need to be cultivated at your company in order to meet success.

      Note: This obviously may not apply if you are an independent consultant. Think about other opportunities that might be available through professional associations and networking instead.

  8. Skills to Develop
    • Project what skills you need to develop to reach the goals you listed in the first part of this exercise.
    • What other skills do you need, besides the ones you have now, to attain your goal?

      Since I am a manager and this is the area in which I have been growing, I listed things such as Confidence and Effectiveness—along with ideas on how to master these more intangible skills.

      Over the last couple of years, I have purposely put myself into situations to gain confidence—especially when giving presentations. Think about starting slow and building on your successes.

      In addition, I also listed skills of associated/allied roles that I would like to learn in order to make myself a more well-rounded and effective manager in my company.

  9. What I Care About in a Work Environment
    • This may seem frivolous or not important to the task at hand, but it serves to remind you of the values you need to share with the company you work for. As you grow or the company changes this can help guide you when you need to make a change.
  10. Personal Goals
    • Don’t forget the personal goals that you need to weave into your life. It never hurts to write these down as a reminder of work/life balance and of the things that are really important to you as a person.

You can use the finished plan as a tool when working on performance goals with your boss. Letting her know what you want out of the job is as important as your manager being clear on what is expected of you. Reminding her regularly of your goals is also important, as we tend to fall into patterns of behavior that may not be best for our long-term career plans.

I pull my career plan out periodically to check off what I have accomplished, and have begun adding to the long-term section. I see how I have grown and what areas I still need to work on in order to reach the goals I have set. I can also see that some things that were important to me three years ago are no longer important, and that there are new areas of growth I am cultivating.

The point of this exercise is to come up with a realistic plan within the framework of your interests and career path. The list should be visited regularly and modified as you reach goals or when goals are no longer important to you. The plan should help you shape a vision towards reaching a future destination and remind you that success does not happen by chance.

  • Creating a Career Plan
    http://www.lmabayarea.org/pdf/LMA Career Planning.pdf
    Sugarcrest.com. This PDF from a career training firm offers some good exercise questions to answer about your values, strengths and current situation. A nice companion to the template detailed in this article.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online). She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She is editor in chief of Boxes and Arrows.

Looking Forward and Back

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“I resolve to spend less time worrying about educating people about what I do, and more time doing what I do—designing websites people can use.”

—Brenda Janish

Reflections on 2003 and resolutions for 2004

Looking back

This time last year, Boxes and Arrows published a few predictions. We promised that at the end of 2003 we would take a look back and see how insightful these predictions were. As expected, many of these predictions were ahead of their time and I expect that it may a couple more years before these come to pass.

Here are a few of those predictions and their outcome:

Dan Brown predicted:

The number of books specifically on information architecture (a la Polar Bear and Blueprints, et al) will double.

B&A: Well, they didn’t exactly double. An Amazon search reveals 14 books with Information Architecture as a phrase in the title with only four coming out in 2003. On the other hand, we know that many usability, information design and design books that are relevant also came out in 2003 so collectively there are a lot of good resources available.

There will be at least one course on information architecture in every major university in the world.

B&A: Mmm, how to check this one out. There are a lot of new courses in IA showing up in universities around the world. However, finding consistency in curriculum or even in the type of department offering the class, cerificate, degree is hit or miss at best. We still have some work to do here.

Earl Morrough predicted:

I predict that in 2003 the subject of the emerging profession of information architecture will be picked up and reported on by at least one of the major television news networks. The report will include clips from an interview with either Christina Wodtke, Peter Morville, or Louis Rosenfeld.

B&A: Well, maybe this year.

Jeff Lash predicted:

2003 will be the year of wireless. Wireless networks in homes, businesses, and public and common spaces will be increasingly popular, and cheaper service plans for mobile phones and PDAs will drive the development of usable and useful wireless-based applications.

B&A: Close. We are getting there. I think 2004 will actually see the cheaper prices and free common spaces. Where folks dabbled in 2003, 2004 will see wireless become commonplace.

Christina Wodtke predicted:

“Findability” will begin to be part of the business vocabulary along with “usability” and “understandability,” but not until the end of 2003, where it will be mentioned in a magazine such as CIO or Fast Company.

B&A: Well, I couldn’t find, findability mentioned anywhere except here and Peter Morville’s site. But CIO has a couple of articles, from the latter half of the year, about using audience to drive website design. Sounds like UCD to me.

And Dan Saffer successfully predicted:

Several IAs will get drunk in Portland.

B&A: I think he hit the nail on the head there. Any predictions for Austin?

Here are the rest of last year’s predictions. Boxes and Arrows invites you to add more of your own and comment on the success or failure of these to come to pass.

Looking forward

To ring in the new year Boxes and Arrows asked our staff and members of the IA, UX, and Design community to share some of their professional resolutions. We have seen this community grow, fracture, and come together as we all share common goals. And I think our collective resolutions reflect our continued growth and search for excellence in our work.

Brenda Janish:

I resolve to spend less time worrying about educating people about what I do, and more time DOING what I do—designing websites people can use. And—if I’m lucky—designing websites that contribute to the general good.

Liz Danzico:

Whether inside or outside of work, I’ve fallen into an accidental pattern of using certain tools to avoid voice communication. I communicate with colleagues in the next cube via email. I keep up with family members through instant messenger. I have to depend on friends’ blogs to know where they are.

As an information architect, my job is to communicate ideas. Whether the communication takes place between my client and me or between my team and an outside vendor, how I communicate those ideas is important not only in content but in format. For 2004, I intend to communicate directly: I will use the telephone more and without hesitation; I will approach people’s desks unabashedly and without warning. I will depend on the typed word only when these more direct forms are not available.

Erin Malone:

Continue to practice work-life balance and put my external community efforts into initiatives that will really make a difference—like AIFIA and Boxes and Arrows.

Write more.

Nick Finck:

Well, I have made a new year resolution to start extending my efforts within and outside of my own publication.

Part of this is joining up with Boxes and Arrows as a web developer. The other part is going things streamlined in my publication internally so I can invest more time into writing and contributing to other sites and publications.

Another part of this is just getting more in-touch with other individuals within the web community as a whole. Individuals from various backgrounds such as IA, publishing, UX, usability, accessibility, web programming and more. These are people who I already know and talk with from time to time. I am hoping that this year I can get to know these people even better and build more open communication between all of us as professionals.

As far as IA techniques, I can say that I hope to implement a new taxonomy for my publication within the year. It’s actually something I have been meaning to do for a long time but haven’t been able to
gain enough momentum to make it really happen. Along with this I plan to implement several other IA related strategies that will help improve the findability, usability and user experience of my publication.

Marko Hurst:

My mantra in life is “balance in everything.” In my now 8 year career I’ve worked for nearly every sized company from myself—several thousand, worked on projects that have lasted a few days—2 1/2 years, worked with too many technologies to remember, and played the role of nearly every person in a web development cycle from designer-developer, PM-business owner, and of course an IA.

Other than for myself I have never been a “technical” architect. So, in keeping w/ my mantra I feel the one of the greatest assets I bring to projects as an IA is my well-rounded skill-set. I feel that having been in everyone’s shoes has allows me a special insight to their cares and concerns, which in turn I can take into account and “translate” to others. So, this year my resolution is to understand System Architecture & Design.

And let’s not get crazy now, I don’t plan on selling myself as a Technical Architect by any means. The same as I do not claim to be a Developer because I can code a few JSPs or create a JDBC connection. The point is to simply to become familiar enough with another integral part of the web development cycle.

Jenifer Tidwell:

In our next design cycle, I’m going to try to keep a “design notebook” for the project. It would be, in a sense, a collective memory for the design team. From the inception of the project through the final touches, I want to keep track of design decisions made, the reasons for those decisions, all design documents, and “paths not taken”—alternative designs, features we want to implement but don’t have time for, etc.

Why? First, our design documents tend to be scattered in different places. We’d like them pulled together into one place so we can all have easy access to them. Second, our product release cycles are long—over a year in many cases—and we always end up asking ourselves questions like, “Why did we decide to do X? Did we ever consider Y? There was a good reason not to do Z, but what on earth was it?” Third, it gives us something to look back over at the end of the project; we can use it to evaluate our process, and help decision-makers “connect the dots” between our high-level goals and the features our team actually delivers.

I’ve never done this before, and I’ve never heard of it being done. It just seems like a good solution to the problems our project teams have had!

Lou Rosenfeld:

My resolution is to write a book on enterprise IA. 🙂

Keith Instone:

I resolve to actually read B&A this year! “Too damn busy working” is not a valid excuse anymore.

[We like to hear that, Keith, and we’ll be checking our IP Address logs to see if you follow through…just kidding. —Editors]

Julianne Bowman:

Finding ways of using captology in interactive marketing that are useful and engaging to the user as well as smart for the marketer.

Convincing marketers to harvest customer profile data over the course of several user visits, thus creating several “value-exchanges” for the user instead of one big, alienating registration form.

To continue trying to focus my clients on the big usability changes that really matter. They are so focused on piddling quick wins it can be difficult to get them to see the wood for the trees.

To use Visio’s new XML output facility a lot.

And finally,

Cynthia Hoffa:

I think, like me, many IAs are still stranded on the lower end of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Therefore my short list might look modest, but it encompasses the primary things we fight to conquer in our quest for “self-actualization.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Demonstrate how I add value.

Extricate myself from crazy delivery cycles.


Good words to live by.

I invite you, dear readers, to add your resolutions to the list and wish everyone a prosperous and effective 2004.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online). She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She is editor in chief of Boxes and Arrows.

Building a Vision of Design Success

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“Alone, the pain that triggers a redesign is not enough of a guide to build something useful to the company. You have to build a shared vision.”


In the last year I’ve been at Yahoo!, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in three redesigns. They have all gone rather well, though through conversations with colleagues, I’ve come to understand this is not always common. Redesigns are as often crucibles of group anguish as they are opportunities for invention and rebirth. In the entirety of my career, I’ve definitely seen both. So what is the difference that allows one redesign to work and another to turn into months of tail chasing? Fortunately I’ve been part of several post-mortems as well, and I think the key difference is vision.

A redesign has some built-in advantages over everyday maintenance; the most useful being focus. And focus is the loam that allows a shared vision to grow. A group chooses to redesign typically because the site is no longer working, and the pain of the site not working is greater than the pain of stopping business as usual and entering into an expensive and emotional project. But once committed, you have to move the project from reactive (something is broken) to proactive (we’re going to build something great). Alone, the pain that triggers a redesign is not enough of a guide to build something useful to the company. You have to build a shared vision.

Shared Vision

A common view of vision is that it’s something handed down by a leader to the troops. When a redesign goes awry, the troops complain, “There was no vision.” Sometimes there was a vision, but the leader didn’t communicate it, or more commonly, no one bought into it. Then the leader complains the troops didn’t obey. But the problem goes deeper than either scenario; the problem is that there was no shared vision. A shared vision is born of collaborative conversations, articulated in a form that is digestible and memorable, and then internalized and personalized by every member of the team. The power of the shared vision is that it is shared—it is held within every member of the team (or organization) and thus needs no leader to carry it forward; every action of the team helps make the vision real.

Success, all starts in the way the vision is birthed. A vision can come initially from one of two places: the leader can create it or recognize it. It’s another fallacy that folks think leaders must be the source of all ideas—they don’t. A great leader should be just as capable of recognizing an idea as well as dreaming one up—in fact, more the first, which is more scalable. So: a leader has either come up with an idea (the current site doesn’t allow us to realize a new business model; we need to redo it) or may recognize one (our usage numbers are in decline—marketing says people think we don’t have what they want; user research says it’s hard to find anything on the site, I just read this article on findability—hmm, I wonder if there is something there). This germ of a vision is the proto-vision. To get the proto-vision to a vision, the leader needs to feel comfortable shopping around the proto-vision. When you shop around the proto-vision, you have numerous one-on-one or small-group conversations about the proto-vision with as many people with different viewpoints as is feasible. Again, this is often hard for new leaders, who think they have to be the single resource of all wisdom. More seasoned leaders are eager to do this, as the act of shopping around the vision sets the foundation for a shared vision. It also makes the vision stronger, as it roots out biases arising from a single point of view.

Finally, the initial vocalized reason for the redesign is often not a good vision. Let’s say you redesign because your navigation system isn’t scalable. That’s the pain-point that kicks off the work, but is that a guiding force to lead you to a great product? You’ll need to deconstruct “our navigation isn’t scalable” into “we offer the greatest collection of independent movies in the world, easy to find, easy to watch, easy to share” (for example).

Look both ways

Let’s assume, for whatever reason, you will be shaping the shared vision. Maybe you are the leader, or maybe the leader hasn’t provided enough of a vision to make you confident in your project, and you are going to lend a hand shaping the vision. To shape the proto-vision into a vision, you’ll need to do some interviewing. I usually select the people who will help me shape a vision using a few criteria: domain expertise, intelligence, system thinkers and open-mindedness. I always do these in one-on-one discussions. This avoids group think, and I find I can help people speak more honestly if there isn’t any sort of audience. The conversation covers three topics: looking backward, looking forward, and finally, the protovision.

To look backward, I find it useful to use Peter Senge’s Five Why’s. This is a very simple technique in which you ask why, and when you get a response, you ask why again. It helps you move from specific issues to uncovering larger underlying problems.

For example, let’s say you are the head of user research:
Me: Why do you think we should do a redesign?
You: Because people can’t find anything.
Me: Why can’t they find anything?
You: The navigation isn’t intuitive.
Me: Why isn’t it intuitive?
You: We didn’t do any user research when we designed it, just usability after.
Me: Why is that?
You: Well, our budget was cut…
Me: Oh? (which is what I say when I’m tired of “why”…)
You: Well, the company doesn’t seem to value getting user feedback.

From this short conversation, I’ve learned several things. The user researcher thinks findability is a key problem, and he thinks research would help, and he feels we don’t invest in it. I can return to any of the places where I asked way, and take a different branch to find out more. I could ask “What makes you think the site isn’t intuitive” to learn more about the site problems, I could ask more about “Why you thought that usability wasn’t enough,” or could continue digging out why the company doesn’t think user research is important or I can spend another five whys finding out if user feedback is valuable and why. To be thorough, I’d probably dig through them all.

I’ll finish up the conversation by asking many of the classic pre-design questions, which allows me to look forward: why are we doing this design now? What are the opportunities? What will make this project a success? What would success look like?

Later, when I walk through my notes, I’ll be trying to find the concrete problems and positive aspirations. The concrete problems will go into my redesign plan, the positive aspirations are fuel for the vision. My sets of questions would probably lead me to moments of both: “Our site isn’t easy enough to use—our users say they want to be able to find and rent a movie quickly, because they are often doing it at work.” From here speed and ease arise. “Our users are sick of all the blockbusters they can get at the local store; they want to find movies they’ve never seen before.” From here comprehensiveness or unique collections arise as an aspiration.

As you get to your fifth and sixth conversations, you’ll find you start to have a more defined set of aspirations for your proto-vision which you can use as foil for your discussions:
Me: Do you think we need to offer access to every movie on the net?
You (business leader): No, I think we are positioning ourselves as an alternative to Netflix—it’s more critical to be comprehensive on independent movies.
Me: Hmm—can you tell me more? (another why alternative)
You: It’s an underserved market—we can build our strengths there before trying to get share from the big guys.
Me: What does it take to satisfy this market?
You: Better talk to Sally in research, if I recall right she said it’s going to take 500,000 films to appear useful.
Me: With so many films, how can anyone find anything?
You: Well, that’s your problem…
Me: But it needs solving? You think we need to make sure the site is easy to use?
You: You bet—we’ve got to satisfy this market; they influence others.

I’ve now gotten a more senior individual to voice his belief that a large selection that is easy to access, is a goal critical to the redesign. Even though his original kickoff to the redesign might have been about navigation, he has now revealed and/or bought into the larger vision to provide user satisfaction, built on ease of access and selection.

You may think this technique is a consultant’s tool, but even though I’m in-house, I still go forward asking these questions. Just because I think I know the answers doesn’t mean my answers are right. Let’s say I thought we planned to offer every movie ever made—I’d discover I was wrong. Moreover, these conversations tie us together in our inquiry, giving us an infrastructure of shared knowledge that will lead to shared vision.

These conversations can be quite delicate and require one to have a certain amount of skill in interviewing. It’s critical you do not lead the conversations with your ideas and that when you introduce elements of your proto-vision you are doing so in a way that tests the concepts and builds shared vision, rather than trying to get a quick buy-in (which will bite you in the patootie later). User researchers are excellent in subtle interviewing techniques; if you haven’t got the skills, you may want to go to a researcher for coaching, take a class or read a book (some resources listed below).

Digest, and articulate

At the end of each conversation, you have hopefully noticed some common themes. If you didn’t, you went through your notes and pulled them out. Then you took the themes to the next conversation, as you worked your way across disciplines and up and down the hierarchy. Maybe there have been three conversations, maybe there are ten, maybe they were all a tidy hour, maybe some of them were five minutes in the cafeteria…but you should now have what you need. You have a collection of critical aspirations for the site.

Now take a pass with your user base. In the past, I’ve successfully used a variation of an older technique which involves word-importance. You take a set of 100 words/two word phrases that represent qualities of products you offer and have a larger sample of users pick ten to fifteen of the ones that matter to a (mail, shopping, research) site. For each product, replace some of the words in your standard list with ones that are relevant to the product—in this case, your redesign. For example, a news site might need the word authoritative, a personals site might replace that with warm. Next you ask the users to rank them in order of importance. When you analyze this survey, you should see five words rise to the top—these will become touchstones for your work. You can also later use these words at the end of a usability evaluation (on a scale of 1-5 how authoritative was this site?) or to test visual comps in surveys. At Yahoo!, we print them and hang them in our war rooms to provide focus.

Once you have the words from users, and the interviews, you can see if they don’t match. God help you if they are completely different. Odds are good, though, there will be a fair amount of overlap, and a bit of nudging will ferret out a set of final qualities, valued by business thatusers also aim for. If time is an issue, you can do this at the same time you are still conducting interviews. If you don’t have access to large user numbers, I recommend skipping this exercise and using a different concept testing technique. And shocking as it may be, you may not get to have user input at all—in this case, hold as many interviews, with as many folks as you can, and include a few target users by going to the mall or asking questions on web bulletin boards. Honestly, you may even find you are forced to begin to design with the final vision unformed…it happens. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to push toward a vision: a vision coalesced halfway through a redesign is still better than no vision.

Now take the time to articulate the complex vision made up of proto-vision and the user and business knowledge you are holding in your head into a simple vision—preferably one sentence. This will be hard, it’s almost like creating a mission statement. However, it’s not a vision for a whole company, so don’t kill yourself. Just get to a simple, clear sentence or phrase that is the essence of what you are striving to accomplish. I’ve seen redesigns driven by even the simplest set of words, provided they are the right words. What is critical, is that it captures the essence of what you hope to accomplish, collectively.

Market the vision

Now that you have your vision seed, you are going to do almost the opposite of what you have been doing. So far you’ve taken as many diverse elements as possible and boiled them down to the essence. Now you have to take that essence and make it accessible for the folks who will hear your vision. You have to articulate what that vision means—for example, if fast is a part of the vision, it’s worth it to clearly articulate that you mean, fast loading (for engineers to concentrate on optimizing on the server-side and designers to avoid graphics) , the illusion of fast downloading (for your web developers, so they can look into things like progressive rendering) and fast-to-scan (for your designers, to concentrate on clarity).

Next you need to market this eloquent vision. Some potential forms for this include:

  • PowerPoint presentations: The first sentence of the vision is the first slide, and then you go on to explain what the meaning of the vision is, what the aspects of the vision are, why this is the right vision and what it takes to get to it.
  • Posters: We’ve used posters as a great tool to keep the vision in front of our eyes as we work. The poster consists of a simple strong image capturing the essence of the vision, with words or phrases elaborating the vision around it.

    Simpler than a poster, you can print out the vision statement in a large font and hang it up in every cube, in every meeting room, and in the war room.

  • Memes: These are catchy phrases that hold a single key concept. You use them while reviewing work to hold the work accountable to the vision. If an aspect of the vision is speed, embodied in a fast download, then a meme might be “Every pixel has a job to do.” A catchy phrase is a godsend for keeping everyone focused…if you’ve got someone on your team with a talent for a turn of phrase, use them. If your memes are catchy enough, they’ll be internalized and every act of creation will be in context of these simple instantiations of the vision.

Not only do these techniques communicate the vision to those who did not help create it, but also act as a reminder of a shared vision to those who did. In the hectic day-to-day madness that accompanies any large project, reminders of a shared vision are invaluable.

In praise of vision

In a redesign, a vision can be the difference between a clear, cohesive design and a hodgepodge of various stakeholders’ urges. In the worst case, it can produce a work so inferior to the original that months are lost when the work is scrapped. Or it’s launched and customers flee in droves.

In our working life, there are many things we do without a vision. And we do the work like a zombie, without our heart, or we do it passionately, but at odds with the larger goals of the company. But if we incorporate vision into our work, our work is more targeted, more effective and more meaningful. A status report becomes a tale of getting closer to a dream; a banner ad becomes a promise of delight to a customer that is fulfilled upon a website visit.

This is just a simplified version of the techniques my colleagues and I have used to capture a vision to ensure a successful design process—you are welcome to expand, embellish, reduce and streamline it for your own purposes. Just remember: the vision must be clear, meaningful and shared. A top-down vision that is not owned and internalized by all members of the team is not a vision at all, but a wish.

And if wishes were horses…