Unraveling the Mysteries of metadata and taxonomies

by:   |  Posted on

Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows interviews Samantha Bailey (former Argonaut and current lead IA for Wachovia Corporation’s Wachovia.com website) about Information Architecture, her dream process and the mysteries of metadata and taxonomies.

B&A: Let’s get meta – you come from the Argus LIS-flavored school of IA. What is your definition of Information Architecture?

SB: I’m going to pull this answer directly from an article I just wrote: “While it is unlikely that any two practicing information architects will give identical definitions of the term, there is consensus that information architecture has organization at its root. Basing my understanding on Morville and Rosenfeld’s approach, I define information architecture as: “the art and science of organizing information so that it is findable, manageable, and useful.” This definition is a “I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way.”content-intensive interpretation, indicating my bias that information architecture skills are most critical in content rich environments. It also draws on the information retrieval roots of library science, emphasizing the importance of being able to find that which one seeks, whether known or unknown. Finally, information architecture is a user-centered discipline, understanding that usability is at the heart of a successful information based interaction.”

B&A What skills does one need to become a good IA?

SB: On an ongoing basis and in terms of basic personality traits, good IAs need to be inquisitive, problem/solution oriented, and dedicated to continual learning. The field is so new that there isn’t a set body of knowledge that you can learn in full and then have “mastered.” I think there is certainly a body of knowledge that an IA needs to pursue and absorb, which lays a foundation upon which to build.

In terms of the fields that I think most profoundly influence IA and are the best fodder for ongoing learning: Library and information science (my bias, obviously), HCI, cognitive psychology, ethnography and linguistics are among those I consider most critical.

Additionally, all of us need sales/marketing skills so that we can promote the field and continue inserting information architecture practices into processes that have been around long enough and are well established enough that it can take some work to make room for the IA piece.

B&A If someone wrote you having just gotten their BA-perhaps in English or philosophy-and wanted to become an IA, what would you tell them?

SB: I actually have a BA in philosophy, so it doesn’t appear to get in the way of pursuing IA too much. I guess I’d recommend reading as much as possible; there’s such a rich reading list now, and so many people with great insights. When I first became interested in IA, Lou [Rosenfeld] & Peter [Morville] hadn’t written their book yet, and IA was more nebulous. The ambiguity was appealing to me, as I was attracted to being part of something that was in the process of being formed. At times it also felt somewhat insubstantial; we were making it up, and sometimes there was a lurking sense that it lacked legitimacy for the very reason that it hadn’t been codified.

In addition to the reading, join the SIGIA listserv, find a discussion group, look for a mentor. And of course there is working on actual information architectures: your own site, volunteer projects, student projects. I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do, career-wise, immediately after college, so I worked for several years. I’m really glad about that, as it made it easier to be confident and to be taken more seriously. After I got my master’s degree and my first “real” IA position, I had real world life and work experience. While it’s important to have rather specific skills in classification and user-centered design methodology, I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way. I recommend throwing yourself in the way of whatever learning opportunities strike you as even remotely relevant.

B&A You recently joined a large financial institution. What are some of the differences you’ve seen between being a consultant and being an employee?

SB: There are both similarities and differences. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been in the area of sales/business development. As a consultant, I was never fond of the part of my job that involved business development (e.g., marketing the company, bringing in business via sales calls, structuring projects to enhance future business opportunities, etc). But I knew it was a critical part of my role as a consultant and, more particularly, as a consultant in a small start-up. So, when I joined a very specific department in a large company, I thought my bus dev days were behind me. And, indeed, I no longer have direct sales responsibilities. There aren’t calls to sit in on, RFPs to respond to, proposals to defend, etc., but my sales/marketing role remains a critical part of my new job. In this role, I’m selling something a bit different. Instead of selling a specific company/group of individuals, or a specific methodology or “secret recipe,” I’m now selling information architecture as a discipline that is critical to successful web design and that can be successfully fit into the company’s existing processes without too much pain. So, I’m changing my attitude about business development; from something that consultants or folks in small companies do to something that everyone has to do, in some way or another, all the time.

There is also, of course, the innie vs. outtie issue, that has been discussed on SIGIA. As a consultant, you see the pros and cons of being an outtie depending on the nature of the project- e.g., it can be a benefit to be removed because you’re not bogged down and swayed by existing politics, and yet it can also be a negative, as you may not fully understand the complexity of the environment and can put your foot in your mouth past the ankle before you even realize you’ve goofed. As an innie, there are pros and cons as well, and they’re often of an opposite nature-you have your finger on the pulse of the politics but you may not command the respect that a consultant’s “outsider” status conveys.

The biggest thing I miss about being a consultant is being able to “go home” both in the course of the project and at the end of the project. It was fascinating to be able to see, and sometimes even be part of, radically different organizations, as a consultant, knowing that in the end I was associated with my own, comparatively comfortable and particularly well-loved company. It could be bittersweet at the end of long, successful projects, but I’ve made great contacts and friends from those projects, and it was always fantastic to be able to finish up a project where the personalities hadn’t meshed as well and sink back into my own “family” of colleagues.

The thing that I’m most looking forward to, as an “innie,” is the issue of ownership and follow-through. As a consultant, I frequently left a project after the design phase and before implementation. That impacted the sense of pride and ownership of the final design, as well as the opportunity to influence the implementation process (in essence “eating our own dog food” when design elements that seemed strong on paper or in concept prove weak in action).

B&A What are some of the unique challenges financial sites offer?

SB: There are several. Security and issues of trust exist on virtually all sites, especially e-commerce sites, but with an online banking environment issues of security are paramount, and security needs that impinge upon the technological back-end supercede other drivers.

Another challenge I’m facing is the extremely complex nature of this site due to the fact that Wachovia is the nation’s 4th largest bank. We have both “retail” (the personal finance related banking you and I do) and “wholesale” (complex corporate and institutional banking) elements. In addition, Wachovia Securities is our brokerage arm, so from both wholesale and retail perspectives there are brokerage-related issues beyond traditional banking services. For example, our site is supporting both the features you’d find in an online bank and the features you’d find at a site like Schwab or Vanguard. This size and complexity issue leads to a number of impacts. The two most pressing are 1) it is quite hard to accurately define our users and narrow them into discrete personas and 2) it is very challenging to navigate the internal features of the bank (e.g. wanting to default to the bank’s organizational structure as the site’s organizational structure before gaining clarity as to what the bank’s organizational structure is and how it functions). B&A What’s the relationship between knowledge management and IA? (if any?)

SB: It depends. One thing it depends on is how you define knowledge management. I define knowledge management pretty loosely, first as the pursuit of maximizing your organization’s functionality by enhancing communication “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics.”about and sharing of both tacit and implicit knowledge and second as the process of codifying this into a system/repository. The communication and capture piece may be the most critical aspect of KM, and I don’t know how much of a role IA can play in this aspect of KM. When it comes to codifying knowledge into a system, of course, IA will play a critical role in creating an information system that functions as well as it can.

B&A Can you tell me the difference between metadata and keywords?

SB: Metadata, at its broadest, is descriptive information about information. In the traditional library world, metadata is most commonly thought of as the big 3 from the traditional card (now online) catalog: Author, Title, Subject. But there are other fields as well-year published, publisher, shelf list number (administrative info for the library). In the online world, we use metadata for administrative purposes (to know when a document is “stale” and needs to be updated or deleted or to know the nature of a file so we know if we have the correct software to open it) and for retrieval purposes (the subject or keyword).
There are roughly 3 kinds of ways to think about, or classify, metadata:

  1. Intrinsic – information that can be extracted directly from an object (e.g., file name, size)
  2. Administrative/Management – information used to manage the document (e.g., author, date created, date to be reviewed)
  3. Descriptive – information that describes the object (e.g. title, subject, audience)

So, metadata can be quite varied-it may support retrieval (author, title, subject), it may support administration (call number, stale date), or both. As you can see, these categories are not mutually exclusive-administrative data could be used for retrieval purposes (if the system supported that usage) and we could debate as to whether “author” was administrative, descriptive or possibly even intrinsic, as with a piece of artwork.

That leaves us with keywords-what are they? Well, they’re a kind of descriptive metadata, generally describing the nature of the information. Keywords may be extracted directly from the text or they may be extrapolated-selected because they describe the text (subject, topic). The context in which keywords are selected and used is important for this reason. Keywords are by their nature fairly granular-a specific word applied to a specific item, often a narrow subset of a document (like a page or a paragraph), but even this granularity can vary in specificity (e.g., does the keyword describe the element in question specifically or generally?). Keywords are typically used for retrieval, as opposed to for administration.

When keywords are applied to html pages-which is generally done for descriptive and retrieval purposes-they are typically applied via a metatag. This may be what has led to some confusion around the difference between metadata and keywords. The metatag fields in HTML were meant to capture all sorts of metadata; and some are used to capture quite a wide array of information. Keyword seems to be the most commonly used/known of the meta field tags.

B&A How about the difference between taxonomies and hierarchies?

SB: Ah, taxonomies vs. hierarchies. Near and dear to my heart – I’ve just written an article on the uses (and misuses) of the term “taxonomy.” You probably know this, but just in case I’ll give a brief history lesson. Taxonomies have been around for a long time – they are hierarchical schemes for classifying things. Aristotle developed a system of classification in 300 BC. “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics. Other disciplines have borrowed the term taxonomy from the hard sciences to describe their classification systems, so it wasn’t a completely novel act when folks working on the Internet stumbled upon it as a good term for describing what they were doing online. I first encountered the term in 1999 while doing some work with Ernst & Young.Management consulting seems to have been enamored of the term in this context early on- and was completely baffled, as I had only been familiar with the term from my biology courses and had never encountered it in my library science/information science work or reading. Doing more exploration, I concluded that when people were talking about taxonomy on the web they were often talking about the traditional LIS definitions for classification schemes, controlled vocabularies, or thesauri. (I went on a brief mission to convince the Argonauts that we should educate our clients about the LIS terms, but it was more or less a failure, so around 2000 I caved and began using the term taxonomy myself. Now, the terms has become so used, I think it has genuine validity of its own on the web.)

On the web, we tend to play fast and loose with terminology, and that’s true here as well. A strict interpretation of the definition of taxonomy would demand that the scheme be a pure hierarchy with one to one relationships. (Items can be in one place and one place only in the scheme-think of the animal kingdom or a family tree – but I’ve met people who are very comfortable with the concept of polyhierarchical taxonomy. Polyhierarchy being the concept that something can “live” in more than one place in a hierarchy. The most common example of this is “piano” in a scheme of musical instruments; it is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.

Here are a couple definitions:

Traditional definition:

“Taxonomy, a sub-field of biology concerned with the classification of organisms according to their differences and similarities, still uses many of Linnaeus’ original categories. Today the major categories are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
(http://www.ensc.sfu.ca/people/grad/brassard/personal/THESIS/node19.html)

Taxonomy on the web:

“A correlation of the different functional languages used by the enterprise to support a mechanism for navigating and gaining access to the intellectual capital of the enterprise.” (One of the more carefully justified definitions of taxonomy comes from research done by Alan Gilchrist and Peter Kibbey of TFPL, a leading taxonomy consulting firm. The definition can be found in the executive summary of the report “Taxonomies for Business: Access and Connectedness in a Wired World.”
(http://www.tfpl.com/consultancy/taxonomies/_report_/taxonomy_report.html)

B&A What about categories, where do they fit in?

SB: Categories are groupings of like elements (often by subject, but also by other criteria, like form). The groupings that make up taxonomies and classification schemes are categories.

B&A So where does the thesaurus come in? “Right now it’s a very thrilling time – we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means.”

SB: You won’t be surprised to find that I have a classic IA’s answer to this question: it depends. 🙂 A thesaurus is an information retrieval tool that excels at making connections between concepts. Information retrieval thesauri are almost the opposite of the way we think of the thesauruses we were introduced to in elementary school. Those thesauri took a word and exploded in outward, so that when we got absolutely sick of writing “brown” we learned that we could substitute the more exotic “sienna.” An information retrieval thesaurus at its most basic relationship brings concepts together, grouping and clumping like terms. Subsequently the document that mentions the brown crayon and the separate document that discusses the sienna Crayola are both pulled together in the information system that has a thesaurus applied to it.

There are 3 primary relationships that thesauri clarify: equivalent relationships (synonyms, variations; as with brown/sienna above), hierarchical relationships (broader and narrower-or more general and more specific), and associative relationships (related terms). In the classical sense, you only had a thesaurus if all 3 relationships were explicated, but on the Web people have been open to using the word thesaurus when they’re talking about just one or two of the relationships.

B&A Can you get all these things to work together in some way?

SB: Yes! There are a variety of different ways (some of this may be semantic, of course, depending on how strictly you want to interpret the terminology). Here’s an example: you might have a site that employed a high level taxonomy or classification scheme (think Yahoo!). If the taxonomy is polyhierarchical, thesaural relationships could be employed as part of the taxonomy (e.g. Movies: see Film). The thesaurus might also be used to show associated relationships for individual records (e.g., Final Fantasy, see also: Japanese anime). A thesaurus could also be used behind the scenes to enhance the search technology-for example, the taxonomy might only display movies and film but the search engine might use the thesaurus to tell the user who searches for “movie” that the results returned were based on documents indexed by the preferred term “film.” Conversely, the search engine might also use the thesaurus to create search zones-returning results for searches of “8mm” from the documents indexed as relating to film before the other documents.

B&A Does every site need all this stuff?

SB: No, definitely not all this stuff. These are concepts that can be leveraged as tools to support classification and retrieval. It’s basically the same as with search-not all sites need a search engine, for example. Barring the religious war between Jared & Jakob there is the reality that some sites seem to work quite well without search engines (e.g., Gap.com) while other sites are greatly enhanced by them (e.g., Amazon).

But every site needs some of this stuff, perhaps. It’s very difficult to have a functional site that doesn’t have some kind of approach to organization-usually in the form of a classification scheme-regardless of whether it’s a hierarchical taxonomy (a place for everything and everything in one place only), a polyhierarchical taxonomy (a Yahoo!-like scheme where items can be placed in more than one category), or a flat classification scheme (as with the simplest brochure sites), etc.

B&A What about software-can you think of software that could benefit from architecting their information?

SB: A topic worthy of a book, undoubtedly. When I’m looking at information architecture for content I tend to focus on classification, navigation, labeling and search, and there are certainly aspects of most all of these in software programs. Labeling is a huge issue in the functionality of software products, especially because we tend to be dealing with extremely narrow and deep structures with software. Good labels (even in the form of rollovers for icons) can make a significant difference in the users’ ability to understand and use the tools. (An interesting side note here is that generally novice or infrequent users have more success with broad and shallow schemes, something that doesn’t tend to work especially well with software interfaces.)

B&A What is your dream process for creating an architecture?

SB: Dream process, hmmm. Well first it begins with assembling a great team. I’d need to have a sense of the parameters to know what size team to go with, but at Argus we had great success with fairly small teams even for rather significantly sized projects. The best teams are a mix of skills, experience and personality. I tend to be drawn to the bottom-up elements of IA (e.g., content analysis, vocabulary control, indexing, etc.) so I tend to look for people with top-down skills (strategy, heuristics) to balance my approach.

After assembling the team, my dream project would have a dream context -clearly defined scope and goals with clients who value information architecture and are prepared to be advocates in their organization (this would be true whether I was an innie or an outtie; there’s generally some kind of client and stakeholder who can pave the way). But don’t go thinking the dream project would run perfectly smoothly-it would still have enough challenges to keep things interesting. I like projects that are daunting but not impossible.

So, let’s see: team, clients. Then I’d have the team sit down and hammer out a process that had a mixture of things we were comfortable with/had done before and had a high degree of confidence with and a few things we wanted to try out/experiment with. And once we had a rough road map we’d dive in and do the work.

B&A There is a lot of talk about semantic webs and self-organizing systems-automated IA, in other words. Meanwhile our community is talking about getting into Experience Design or getting MBA’s… can you see a future where there are no information architects, just machines and people who know what they do?

SB: I recently had a conversation with Matt Jones, IA for the BBC (his weblog is http://www.blackbeltjones.com/) about this very topic, in a more here and now way. Matt was arguing that he didn’t want information architects at the BBC, he wanted multidisciplinary staff members who were skilled in the discipline of information architecture. I took the position that in a world of ever increasing specialization, coupled with corporate environments that ask people to take on ever more responsibilities, with restricted schedules and budgets, we desperately need an individual in the IA role, both to look out for the IA particular issues and to evangelize. A sort of Lorax role-I am the Information Architect, I speak for the…labeling scheme and the organization structure and the search/browse system and so on and so forth. But that’s today, and you’re really asking about tomorrow.

In the library world there have long been whispers that automation will replace the need for librarians-it was even part of Autonomy’s ad campaign a few years ago. I think that there is a human tendency to both intrigue and scare ourselves with the idea that our creations will make us obsolete. And it is true that automation results in dramatic change. However, instead of making librarian’s obsolete, my experience has been that technology and automation often tends to replace the routine tasks, leaving the more subtle, often more interesting, challenges to be performed by people. So, in the big picture, I have no doubt that automation and technical developments will change the nature of our work as information architects over time. But people have been bending their minds to the nature and need for organizing information for a long, long time, whether as librarians or records managers or database administrators. Right now it’s a very thrilling time-we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means. So, yes, I think our work will evolve and change dramatically, but I don’t think the role is going to go away anytime soon.

B&A So what is the future of Information Architecture?

SB: The gazillion-dollar question that leaves me tongue-tied and tempted to blurt out “heck if I know!” But I think your question about semantic web and self-organizing systems hints at the answer-the immediate future requires stabilizing our role in the academic and business communities and identifying the key challenges and problems that we want to solve in the next 10 years. I think we’ll continue to see a weaving of old, new and newer-advancing technology with respected, well understood concepts and evolving thinking. Whatever the future of Information Architecture turns out to be, I’m excited about being part of the work as it unfolds.

Christina Wodtke is the founder of Boxes and Arrows. Her day job is Partner at Carbon IQ, a small user-experience agency in San Francisco, where she designs information architectures and conducts user research in the quest to create more usable, effective and profitable products.

SchwabLearning.org: A Case Study

by:   |  Posted on

One nonprofit + two web agencies + nine months = SchwabLearning.org. Yes, that was the formula to launch our web site, and I am one of the sole survivors to tell you about it. Before I begin telling the story of the project it is best to learn who and what Schwab Learning is.

Schwab Learning, a service of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, is dedicated to helping kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. The Foundation began in 1988 from the Schwabs’ personal struggle with learning differences (LD). After Mr. and Mrs. Schwab’s son struggled in school “Learning about our visitors’ experience first-hand has enabled us to create a web site that meets their needs in a more meaningful way.”they had him assessed for LD. During a meeting with a school psychologist, the Schwabs were asked: “Didn’t either of you have problems like this?” That is when Charles Schwab recognized his own dyslexia, and his lifelong struggle with reading and writing suddenly made sense.

In 1999, after eleven years of serving San Francisco Bay Area parents and educators through direct services and outreach, we realized that we could effect greater change if we expanded our web presence. We needed to find a Web agency that would conduct a study on our target group to understand their needs, develop a web strategy and implement the web site. This project was during the height of dot-com boom, and many agencies were not interested in us because they had many accounts that would bring in a lot more money than our budget allowed. After a few months of pitch meetings with agencies, we signed a contract with Sapient to conduct an ethnographic study and lead us from concept to implementation for a new web site.

Laying the foundation for our new site
When we began working with Sapient we had already established goals, objectives and a direction.

Goal: Help kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. Support kids and moms through “the journey.”

Objectives:

  1. Create two web sites, one for parents/moms and one for kids, but begin with the parent site.
  2. Conduct a study with moms who have a child or children with LD to learn about their experiences. Also, test Schwab Learning’s hypothesis that moms are the “case managers” for their children when working with schools, doctors, etc., and that parents are on a journey to understand and cope with LD.
  3. Create a scalable business and Web strategy to reach moms.

We began working with Sapient in March 2000 focusing on the business strategy and study of moms’ experiences. There were approximately 10 to 12 Sapient team members and 10 to 12 Schwab Learning team members. As a small non-profit, it was awkward working with such a large team of consultants; they totaled one-third of our entire staff at the time. After two months of working together, a draft business strategy was ready for the Board, and the results of the study had been delivered by way of experience models.

Before explaining the experience models and their impact on the Web site it is important to understand the methodology of the study. These models are extremely rich, as it would be very difficult to describe a mom’s experience without them. There were three parts of the study: focus groups, in-home interviews and visual diaries.

Focus Groups: Conducted in San Francisco and Chicago to determine if there were state-to-state differences between moms. There were four focus groups in each state: Two with children identified with an LD and two with children who struggled in school. In each of these pairs one group of moms had children in kindergarten to third grade, and one group had children in fourth to eighth grade.

In-Home Interviews: Seven moms in San Francisco and seven moms in the Chicago area, each interviewed for two hours. These interviews asked moms how they found information about LD, which management strategies they used with their children and for details about their children’s daily routines. There was also a tour of the house to demonstrate how the mom and child interacted in the home. Moms wrote on index cards words, phrases and questions about how they managed their child’s LD and how they felt parenting a child with LD. They arranged these cards in groups to help us understand how the topics are related.

Visual Diaries: Sixteen visual diaries were given to moms in San Francisco and Chicago to chronicle their experiences in a four-day period. Moms were asked to answer some questions and to write free-form journals. Moms were also asked to take pictures of their home environment, their kids, etc.

The LD Landscape
Five domains make up the LD Landscape and demonstrate the areas of a mom’s life that are affected by her child having an LD. These domains exist before their child is identified with LD; however moms have to reorient their relationships in the domains once they begin managing their child.

The lifecycle: gaining awareness
There are usually three stages that parents go through before their child is identified with LD. First they begin to sense that something is different. Next they rule out the environment, sleep patterns or other factors that might cause their child to struggle in school. Finally, they have their child assessed for LD.

The lifecycle: management strategies
After a child is assessed it is now time for the mom to begin learning management strategies that will help her interact with her child in home and at school. Management strategies do not always work, and may have to be refined.

Mom’s evolution of knowledge
When a mom first finds out about her child’s learning difference she usually seeks all the information she can find. This information is critical in the beginning, but over time moms begin to gain confidence in their abilities to help their children and rely more on experience and knowledge.

The next phase
After the experience models were delivered and accepted by Schwab Learning, the next phase of the project began.

A study with moms identified six user types which illustrate the different roles a mom finds herself in along the journey.

Pre-Identified: Doesn’t know that an LD exists. Considers herself part of the “normal” community, yet might feel isolated.

Novice: Acknowledges her child has an LD, but might not know which one. Learns that an LD landscape exists and there are tools and strategies to learn.

Student: Begins to negotiate the landscape and recognizes the affected domains. Recognizes her need for information and assistance.

Case Manager: Reorients herself in the LD landscape. Improves her ability to handle crisis and management of her child.

Advocate: Proactively participates in larger community. Begins to extend her knowledge to others; beginning of leadership.

Sage: Becomes a community resource and begins to be sought out by others.

The articulation of these roles demonstrated to us that we needed to focus on a particular user type or role because we could not launch a site filling all of these needs. After several meetings working with Sapient we narrowed our target for launch to the Novice mom. Choosing this target group made the most sense as we had been serving this population in our local center for years, and we had ready-made content for the web site.

The day our direction changed
At the end of May 2000 the Foundation’s Board met to discuss various matters, primarily the new business strategy and direction of the Schwab Learning. After understanding the costs of the strategy: call centers, large-scale partnerships, and a deep and complex web site at launch, the Board was concerned. Mr. Schwab grew his business from the ground up, building on top of successes while taking calculated risks and learning from them. The decision was made to scale back the scope of the web site, find another web agency to build the web site from the study we had conducted, and launch by the end of 2000.

After finishing our commitment to Sapient in July, we wrote an RFP, interviewed agencies and hired Small Pond Studios (SPS) within a month. We did not want to stop the internal momentum and enthusiasm for building the web site, and we only had four and one-half months to launch the web site. SPS was an ideal agency to work with because not only did they have a stellar team, the four principles worked for Sapient prior to starting their own company. They understood all of the deliverables from Sapient and were able to translate them into a plan for the web site.

Creating a realistic web site
Once the documentation was internalized by SPS we began working on the design, branding and information architecture. There were four conceptual models to choose from: Information, Tools, Journey and Community. The “Journey” concept was the most compelling model because it gave site visitors an orientation about LD while balancing information, community and tools, which are important to managing the journey. Also, the Journey concept complemented our user study because parents need to understand the LD landscape before managing their child’s LD.

The Information concept did not provide Schwab Learning the space to be a guide to parents, and it de-emphasized community. The Tools concept would not provide parents enough desperately sought information. The Community concept would not put Schwab Learning in the expert role, and a community’s growth takes time, which we did not have.

Once the decision was made to move forward with the Journey concept, SPS created two different wire frames to test with moms. One wire frame was based on organizing the information architecture by the LD Landscape (domains): Work, Family, Institutions, Community and Self. The other wire frame was based on the Lifecycle: Is it LD?, Identifying and Managing a Learning Difference, and Sharing Information.

LD Landscape

LD Lifecycle

SPS conducted two rounds of user testing with six moms using wire frames. The first round was to determine which structure made more sense to moms, and the second was to refine the chosen model. During the first round of testing we discovered that moms did not know where to begin with the LD Landscape concept. All of the domains affected their life, and all were very interesting, so knowing where to click first was not intuitive. Moms had a better sense for were to start with the Lifecycle concept, and that confidence would be critical for first-time visitors to the web site.

For the second round of testing using the Lifecycle concept, the main “buckets” were reduced from four to three: Identifying a Learning Difference, Managing a Learning Difference and Sharing Knowledge. Also, because the concept made sense to moms, the domains became the secondary navigation architecture.. We probed on the wording of the “buckets” and placement of clicks, as well as interest in registering and reactions to a first version of the design.

Final information architecture wireframe

Initial design of homepage
We learned valuable information from this second round of testing. Moms liked the happy children and the warm, inviting color of the Web site. They also liked the “.org” front and center. To the moms it assured them that the site was not trying to sell them anything, and our information could be trusted. Moms did raise concern about the phrase “Sharing Your Knowledge” because some of them felt they did not have knowledge to share.

The next step was to continue to refine the design, then marry the technical and design for testing. We had decided early on to build the site in ASP with a MS SQL database. The live site at the time was built on the same platform so we were able to leverage our existing content management system and other functions for the new site.

In the span of two years, the site went from this design and information architecture in January 1999 …

To this site redesign in September 1999 …

And finally to this complete new site in December 2000.


So you launched, now what?
In 2001 we hired four staff members who grew the team to seven, and in 2002 we had a budget for two more. We added several pieces of functionality to the site: polls, quizzes, a web calendar and an html newsletter option; increased our content from eighty articles to two hundred articles and conducted a usability study with ten moms. In 2001 our web traffic steadily increased from month to month. The average visitors from the first quarter to the fourth quarter increased by 46 percent and page views increased by 49 percent.

When we conducted the usability test with moms we discovered that they were having a difficult time browsing once they clicked into “1, 2 or 3.” Moms were struggling to find information they needed in the domains because the lists of articles were becoming too long. Internally we were struggling with placing articles in our information structure, so we knew it needed to be changed. We have kept the 1, 2, 3 structure and added a 4 to house a visitor’s personal page and some of our functionality that previously did not have a home. We also consolidated the secondary information structure from Your Child, Your Family, Schools and Professionals, etc. to Kids & Learning, Home & Family, Schools & Other Resources and have now added a tertiary information structure. This provides us a more flexible structure that moms will hopefully relate better too. This new information and design structure launched in February 2002.

Lessons learned
It has been an amazing two years and yet we still have a long way to go. Looking back, we have achieved our original objectives and applied them to the building of SchwabLearning.org. We have learned many lessons along the way and here are a few:

First, don’t let your vision blind you. We were incredibly excited about helping moms and kids, and that enthusiasm led us to believe that our thirty-person organization could transform itself overnight. We needed to take a deep breath and say, “Wait a minute, how are we going to do this?” Today our vision remains as strong as ever to help kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. Our process to achieve our vision changed from the big bang theory to starting small, building on the foundation we launched with and protecting our assets.

Second, conducting user studies was invaluable. Learning about our visitors’ experience first-hand has enabled us to create a web site that meets their needs in a more meaningful way. Our experience models have enabled us to communicate with partners and other friends of the Foundation as well as create a new language for us: domains, LD landscape, novice, case manager, etc.

Third, user research and usability testing will always put you on the right track. The testing we conducted pre- and post-launch has been extremely useful in guiding our development. The initial user research study gave us the opportunity to go into the homes of the people we were trying to help. This proved to be rich data because we could see first-hand the interactions with their children and how their homes were set up to accommodate their children (i.e. where they kept medications, chore lists, etc.). The focus groups revealed different information as these moms were in a group with different dynamics compared with one-on-one interviews in a home. The diaries gave us another data point that was intimate in a different way as we only knew these moms’ stories and never met them in person. As for the first usability testing, we were able to discover potential pitfalls before going live. Who would have known that moms would have concerns about the concept “Sharing Your Knowledge”, but “Connecting With Others” did not pose a problem. Also in our post-launch usability testing, we discovered that the secondary information structure based on the “Domains” made sense to us, but not to site visitors. This is a very important discovery because if users cannot browse the Web site easily they are apt to become frustrated and leave the site. Moms of kids with LD are most likely already frustrated when they arrive, and we want to provide them a place that takes away the stress and lets them know someone understands.

Although some of these lessons have been learned the hard way, it has been completely worth it. When we receive emails from moms that read, “I am so appreciative of you [SchwabLearning.org], just for being there. Wish I would have found you sooner,” we know we are doing our job.

Jeanene Landers Steinberg is the Web Director for SchwabLearning.org and had the role of project manager during the creation of the Web site. Jeanene manages a team of eight people consisting of technical, editorial and online community staff who are responsible for maintaining and growing SchwabLearning.org into a premiere Web site for LD information, guidance and support.

The Story Behind Usability.gov

by:   |  Posted on

When Detroit’s automotive engineers design a new car, they often bring in real drivers who sit in the seats, mash the gas pedals, and pump the brake. This is the engineers’ approach to involving users in the process of designing new cars that people want to drive—and can drive. Their approach is similar to the thinking that led the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Communication Technologies Branch to formally encourage the designers of government information websites to involve users in the design process. We created Usability.gov, a place to share our knowledge about user-centered web design and why it works with our colleagues.

We are gratified to see clear results from Usability.gov. Government web designers are using more user-centered design practices, and web designers in general appear to be more cognizant of the user’s mindset.

Today, Usability.gov has earned a following among technology professionals. For the uninitiated, Usability.gov is a one-stop source for government web designers to learn how to make websites more usable, useful, and accessible. Our site addresses a broad range of factors that go into web design and development: how to plan and design usable sites by collecting data on what users need; how to develop prototypes; how to conduct usability testing; and how to measure trends and demographics. We have packaged our core knowledge into a specific set of evidence-based guidelines for user-centered web design. In addition, the site offers case study information in a section called Lessons Learned.

Home Page of the Usability.gov website  

What many do not know is the story behind Usability.gov, and knowing that story puts our work in context. It’s a story that underscores the critical role that Usability.gov plays in the electronic communication of complex cancer information to very diverse audiences. One minute, a researcher seeking grant information is pulling up an NCI website for details on what grants are available and where to apply. The next minute, an ordinary citizen is frantically searching NCI websites for any informationæany cluesæabout a type of cancer for which the doctor is testing them. Every day, NCI disseminates life and death information. Usability.gov ensures that users and their web behaviors are kept in mind when designing sites.

The seeds for Usability.gov were sown in early 1999 when the popular CancerNet web site came up for a redesign. As usual, we began by seeking input for the new design from technical professionals: web designers, content writers, engineers. Our “kitchen cabinet” also included users. But the opinions from this broad group of professionals and laymen were as diverse as their backgrounds. Whose ideas were right?

Our director, Janice Nall, decided that we needed a methodology to show that what we were doing would produce an end result that was better than what we started with. In fact, we had to be able to quantifiably measure that CancerNet’s new face was better than the old face, to offer proof beyond a lot of people saying it looked better.

To accomplish this objective, we decided to collect quantitative data about CancerNet’s users and their needs as part of the design process. An online questionnaire and in-person interviews turned up some revealing information. We learned that one-third to one-half of CancerNet users were first-time visitors who were often totally unfamiliar with the site. This fact raised obvious questions: With so many new users, was the site easy enough to use? Could users find the information they needed on the site quickly and easily? These were critical questions in light of the kind of information that CancerNet provided to the public.

Given these questions, we began testing the site, an experience that furthered the need to develop a formal way to collect and share our knowledge for future reference. We conducted user tests with doctors, medical librarians, cancer patients, researchers, and others who we expected would be regular visitors. What we learned from testing was as surprising as what we learned from our questionnaire and interviews: some icons were not clearly clickable, many links were confusing, our terminology did not match our users’, and core information appeared to be buried or lost within the site. These were not mere glitches, but conceptual and foundational challenges that needed to be addressed.

To be thorough, our testing was iterative; we built on prototypes and brought in new sets of users to test each new version. We continually collected information to see if new problems cropped up, seizing on every comment, even something as simple as, “What is that there for?” We were like those automotive engineers in Detroit, watching test participants’ every move and examining their every facial expression.

 
User-centered design tips on CancerNet from Usability.gov’s Lessons Learned section. Click to enlarge.

Today, when you visit Usability.gov, you get a sense of how these tools help government and other web designers to avoid our early mistakes. Whether you read our case study about the redesign of CancerNet in our Lessons Learned section, or read our guidelines about testing issues such as scenario writing, user recruiting, goal establishment, or data compilation, you will see our picture of user-centered web design in action.

We are pleased with CancerNet’s redesign. In the past year or so, the site has won four content and design awards, and CancerNet recently merged with several existing sites, including Cancer.gov, into one portal site. But just as importantly, we are gratified to see clear results from Usability.gov. Government web designers are using more user-centered design practices, and web designers in general appear to be more cognizant of the user’s mindset. What Usability.gov demonstrates is that web design is not about flash and splash. It’s about transmitting useful information that users want—and need—in a way that helps them find what they are looking for.

Sanjay Koyani works for the Communication Technologies Branch of the National Cancer Insitute. He can be reached at .

Taking the “You” Out of User: My Experience Using Personas

by:   |  Posted on

The best laid plans…
In 1999, I co-founded a small San Francisco-based start-up called Pyra. Our plan was to build a web-based project management tool and we chose to focus initially on web development teams for our target audience since, as web developers ourselves, we had intimate knowledge of the user group. At the time the team consisted of three people: my co-founder, our lone employee and myself. We considered ourselves to be good all-around developers: competent in both interface and back-end development. We also assumed we were developing our product (called “Pyra” for lack of a better name at the time) for people just like us, so we could make assumptions based on our wants and extrapolate those desires for all users.

At this time, Microsoft had just released Internet Explorer 5 (IE 5) for Windows and we were anxious to use its improved standards support and DHTML in our application to make the interface as whizbang as possible. By limiting our audience to IE 5, we decided we would be able to deliver the most robust application, one that was sure to impress potential users and customers. Later, we told ourselves, we’d go back and build out versions with support for Netscape and Macintosh. So we set to work building the coolest web application we could, taking full advantage of the latest wizardry in IE 5 for Windows. Development was chugging along when Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” was released and I picked it up. When I got to the chapter discussing the use of personas, I was intrigued. Though I was confident in our approach, creating personas sounded like a useful exercise and a way to confirm we were on track. Continue reading Taking the “You” Out of User: My Experience Using Personas

Learning from the “Powers of Ten”

by:   |  Posted on

Charles and Ray Eames.

To most designers, the Eames name brings to mind rows and rows of molded plywood chairs and Herman Miller furniture of the 1950s. But the Eameses were more than just designers of furniture, they were masters of exploration and experimentation into the realm of experience.

The Eameses used many media to model experience and ideas. The model was a key tool in their design process. The model allowed them to walk through an experience and offered a way to visualize the possibilities and the layers of meaning. One of the modeling tools they used quite frequently was film.

Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the final “Powers of Ten” film.
Click to enlarge.

Throughout their career, they made over 120 short films.1 They ranged in topic from the world of Franklin and Jefferson to advanced mathematical explanations to the scientific exploration of scale in the “Powers of Ten.” The exploration into film helped them explore an idea, work out the presentation and the layers of information and understand a process or theory. The Eameses often carried an idea through multiple versions in order to find the right approach to a problem.

On the Eames Office website, Lucia Dewey Eames writes:

“A film could be a model, not simply a presentation of an idea, but a way of working it out. Looking back at the way the office worked, there is a constant sense that the best way to understand a process was to carry it all the way through. For example, in the creation of the project that became the film “Powers of Ten,” first came a test known as “Truck Test,” then the production of “Rough Sketch” (8 minutes; color, 1968), which was a model of the idea of the journey in spatial scale. Only by carrying the idea all the way through could one see the right way to approach the problem. And, indeed, the final version of “Powers of Ten” (9 minutes; color, 1977) has quite a few differences. But both films are models in a more important sense: they are models of the idea of scale. Because such Eames models managed to capture the essence of the problem, they were in fact quite satisfying in their own right.”2

In an interview in ISdesigNET magazine, Charles and Ray’s grandson, Eames Demetrious says:

“There may be a tendency to assume the films are a charming footnote: Furniture designers making films. But that is not how it was, not how Charles and Ray saw it at all. For them, the films were an intrinsic part of the process.”3

“The Powers of Ten,” perhaps their most successful film, is one such model into the nature of scale. The first version, developed in 1968 for the annual meeting of the Commission on College Physics, went under the title, “A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe.” (8 minutes; color, 1968). In 1977, with the help of Philip Morrison, professor of physics at MIT, they updated and refined the work under the new title, “The Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero” (9 minutes; color, 1977). The film sought to visualize the relative size relationships of elements through space and time and expose what happens when you add another zero to the equation.

“The ‘Powers of Ten’ also represents a way of thinking—of seeing the interrelatedness of all things in our universe. It is about math, science and physics, about art, music and literature. It is about how we live, how scale operates in our lives and how seeing and understanding our world from the next largest or next smallest vantage point broadens our perspective and deepens our understanding.”4
—Powers of Ten website

Series of Sketches for the Films
Chart plotting sequences of “Powers of Ten”
Storyboard sketch 1
Storyboard sketch 2
Storyboard sketch 3
Storyboard sketch 4

The film starts by showing an image of a sleeping man at one meter square (100) and gradually pulls back, moving ten times away for every ten seconds of time that passes, eventually reaching the edge of the universe (1025). The camera then zooms forward, into the sleeping man’s hand, finally reaching the inside of an atom (10-18).

Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the “Rough Sketch.”
Click to enlarge.

The exploration of information presentation in the “Rough Sketch” and in the final “Powers of Ten,” speaks to the value of models that the Eameses used to explain their ideas about information organization and presentation. The imagery explores both size relationships and time. It explores the visual relationships of elements and developing patterns that emerge at different scales. The control panel (in the “Rough Sketch”) that is always present on the screen visualizes another six levels of information at its peak.

The combination of imagery and the control panels explores the nature of simultaneous presentation of information. The Eameses push the boundaries of what can be taken in and understood at any one time, they play with the notion of information overload and information absorption. The 1968 version (“Rough Sketch”) explores more levels of simultaneous information than the 1977 final version, in which the panel display is reduced to its most essential information and relocated for better comprehension and retention.

Sponsored by IBM, the film was one of the many efforts that the Eameses worked on to bring science, technology and art together in a way the average person could understand.

“Eames approached the problem in universal terms (to please the ten-year-old as well as the nuclear physicist) and, as in designing a chair, sought to find what was most common to their experience. Sophisticated scientific data was not the denominator (although the film had to handle such matters with complete accuracy to maintain credibility), but it was the inchoate ‘gut feeling’ of new physics which even the most jaded scientist, as Eames says ‘had never quite seen in this way before.’”5

Although more than 20 years old, the series of films offers lessons on successful presentation and explorations of layered information. The information problems explored through film, by the Eameses, are really no different than many of the problems facing information architects today. Studying the Eames’ work and their processes may yield effective processes for today’s IA. Using different media and methods in prototyping and modeling of ideas, as well as presenting layers of information in a way that is simple and elegant, the Eameses succeeded in their original goals:

“The sketch should, Eames decided, appeal to a ten-year-old as well as a physicist; it should contain a ‘gut feeling’ about dimensions in time and space as well as a sound theoretical approach to those dimensions.”6

For more information: View All End Notes

Making Emotional Connections Through Participatory Design

by:   |  Posted on

Experience design and user experience have become overused, often confusing buzzwords. Regardless of their meaning, most of the people we talk to believe that the desired end result is an emotional connection between a person and her experience with a product or service. When a company is able to make them, such connections can have a positive impact on the profitability and sustainability of the company’s brand.

Unlike other approaches to understanding users, participatory design assumes that users should play an active role in the creative process.

In attempts to make these connections, “touch points,” or areas where people come in contact with a brand, are typically identified and designed. In experience design, these touch points are not bound by a single design discipline, and the interactions between various touch points are critical in making the desired emotional connection. For example, in the area of retail, customers can shop online, through a catalogue, at a store, or over the phone. Most people tend to use a combination of these approaches. They will first learn about a given category, formulate their requirements, and then find the best deal. Each interaction is a touch point that shapes the user’s overall experience.

Picking the right touch point combinations
In order to exhaustively identify the right touch points, new tools for idea generation, such as scenarios and personas, have emerged. In most cases, these tools tend to be based upon the cognitive or functional elements of what users want or need. The tools can be generated either by brainstorming or through research ranging from quantitative to ethnographic. These tools can help put a human face on users and unite a design team behind a common goal.

While these tools can be very useful to an interdisciplinary team, they are only as good as the beliefs and assumptions upon which they are founded. We have heard about numerous design processes and approaches for making emotional connections, yet many of these approaches were founded upon assumptions that proved to be incorrect. For example, brainstorming user or customer needs can lead to unvalidated assumptions about users. When based upon limited information or faulty assumptions, tools can focus a design team—and ultimately a business—on an objective that does not result in an emotional connection.

To increase the probability of making an emotional connection, and to identify opportunities to make such a connection, better information is needed at the fuzzy front end of the design process. Ideally, the people who bring alive a business’s various touch points (the cashiers in the store or the interaction designers, for example) need to understand what users want and how they want to feel. To do this, they need to gain access to the dreams and imaginations of the target users. If they are successful, a company can begin to see its future through the eyes of the people who will pay for its products or services. This information is often difficult to obtain from just talking to people or observing their behavior, and these difficulties have led to the misconception that people do not know what they want or cannot tell you what they want. We believe, though, that people have a latent sense of what they want, which may not be easily expressed through conversations or interviews.

Participatory design has emerged as a response to these difficulties. Unlike other approaches to understanding users, participatory design assumes that users should play an active role in the creative process: users envision the future by identifying the defining moments from their perspective. These moments can highlight critical touch points and the desired feelings associated with them, which serve as a foundation for emotional connections.

Through years of efforts to understand people and their experiences, we have come to believe that:

  • All people are creative.
  • All people have dreams.
  • People project their needs onto ambiguous stimuli.
  • People are driven to make meaning and will fill in what is unsaid or unseen.

From these principles, we have learned to create exercises that merge psychology, market research, and design. These exercises place the tools for ideation directly in the hands of the target users and enable them to express their desired experiences.

Using participatory design techniques

  • To offer suggestions for creating participatory design exercises, we will discuss three main areas:
  • the tools for the exercises,
  • the exercises, and
  • the ordering and combining of exercises based upon your project objectives.

These exercises can be executed with groups or individuals where they work, live, and play, or in research facilities.

Focus group respondents doing exercises within a lab environment   Participatory design exercises being conducted within the family room
Focus group respondents doing exercises within a lab environment.   Participatory design exercises being conducted within the “family room.”

Tools for participatory design techniques

Typical items used to create participatory design exercises   Three-dimensional participatory design components
Typical items used to create participatory design exercises.   Three-dimensional participatory design components.
Toolkit for mapping the ideal outdoor patio experience   Toolkit for expressing feelings surrounding TV experiences
Toolkit for mapping the ideal outdoor patio experience.   Toolkit for expressing feelings surrounding TV experiences.
User being creative through participatory design exercises   Thinking through his experience while creating a collage
User being creative through participatory design exercises.   Thinking through his experience while creating a collage.
Click each image to enlarge.

The tools for participatory design exercises resemble items in an elementary school classroom and can be purchased at office, craft, or teacher supply stores. Scissors, glue sticks, poster boards, scrap book pages, stickers or printouts with words or pictures, cameras, playful shapes, and markers are typical items. Stickers or printouts with words or images are especially useful because they can used to express items, feelings, actions, features, etc. For three-dimensional or interactive products, Legos or building blocks may be used.

Exercises can be developed to express cognitive, emotional, aspirational, and procedural issues. They can also be developed to enable the embodiment of ideas. In creating the exercise, both the choice of words and images and instructions for the exercise must be considered.

Emotional exercises tend to ask people to describe an experience and use words that describe feelings: careful, alert, relaxed, etc. The images are tend to show people expressing emotion or elements which tend to drive elicit these emotions.

Procedural exercises usually involve asking a person to describe a current or aspired process. They use action or activity words, such as: think, create, shop, buy, etc. The images are typically cartoon-type drawings that express actions or items associated with these actions.

The act of laying out the words and images and the choice of placement on the paper or poster board enable participants to map out much more than could be kept in their conscious memory during a conversation. They also give the participants a chance to notice and articulate their latent feelings. Participants often mention that the act is fun and therapeutic.

The “path of expression”
In experimenting with many of these exercises, we have discovered an approach that involves asking users to imagine the future of a business based upon their needs and aspirations. What follows is a preliminary explanation of what we have learned. We call this the “path of expression.”

The path of expression

Sample workbook exercise used for participant immersion
Sampght=orkbook exercise used for participant immersion. Click this and each following image to enlarge.
Research participant explaining her past, present, and aspired experiences   Collage expressing current and aspired experience
Research participant explaining her past, present, and aspired experiences.   Collage expressing current and aspired experiences.
Map depicting out of the box set-up experience with consumer electronics   User-defined map of information architecture for a self-help CD
Map depicting out of the box set-up experience with consumer electronics.   User-defined map of information architecture for a self-help CD.
Map depicting the ideal experience for computer purchasing   Model of a user-defined remote control for a child’s playroom
Map depicting the ideal experience for computer purchasing.   Model of a user-defined remote control for a child’s playroom.

The first step is to get research participants immersed in and aware of their daily experiences surrounding the area of focus. This brings latent daily experiences into their conscious memory. A variety of self-documentation exercises can be applied, such as scrapbooks or storytelling exercises.

After becoming aware of her experiences relative to given subject, a person is ready to express associated emotions. In this step, the participant begins to articulate her feelings and the causes of those emotions to herself and then to the research or design team. We tend to use emotive words and images in a collage.

Asking participants to dream about an ideal or aspired experience is the next step in the process. It is often a good idea to get people to think about how the experience should feel in abstract terms. Collages are a useful tool at this point, as are maps of processes or events. In most cases, these contain both cognitive and emotional elements. Collages can also be used to ask participants to describe an experience over time or to contrast a current experience to an aspired one.

After getting participants to imagine how they want to feel, they are prepared to create solutions that will provide their aspired experiences. The opportunities for exercises at this point can range from mapping a process or event to embodying an interface, information architecture, or product.

Identifying key moments and emotions
The results of these activities are ideas from the imagination and aspirations of the target users. Their ideas are usually unbiased by competitive, technical or manufacturing constraints or by industry expertise. By identifying the key moments in their desired experiences, emotions associated with those moments, and the specific components that can provide these feelings, a foundation for applying the processes of experience design is established. The team can begin to focus their creativity and expertise to design for the desired experience. Opportunities to make an emotional connection become clear, actionable, and inspirational.

These opportunities may be uncovered during the actual research process, but in many cases, the resulting data, information, and artifacts need to be thoroughly and rigorously analyzed to find patterns and themes. We have explored and continue to explore approaches for analysis; however, the issue is too broad to be discussed within this article. We do know, though, that there is no substitute for the design team hearing and seeing firsthand the ideas generated from the imaginations of the people whom their creativity will ultimately serve.

When the Show Must Go On, It’s Time to Collaborate Or Die

by:   |  Posted on

It was a tense meeting. Forty-eight hours before launch and a key multimedia effect was still not ready. The developers were trying to catch up on a long punch list of bugs; the designers wanted last-minute changes to things that were already on the “done” list. No one knew what to do. But there was a deadline, and the reviewers were coming. As a team, we walked through the schedule again and again until we had a plan. The next day, the video was edited, the shop finished the screens, and the production crew walked through the critical paths. Two nights later, the cannon fired, the song began, the screen dropped into place, the film played just as we’d envisioned it, and the cast members of “A Man’s A Man” took their bows before an appreciative live audience. Another show had opened.

Photo from "A Man’s A Man"
“A Man’s A Man” by Bertold Brecht Hyde Park Festival Theater, 1986. Directed by Tim Mayer. Lighting by Whitney Quesenbery. With Bill Murray, Stockard Channing, Gerrit Graham, Mark Metcalf, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bob Halley, Jr.

I became a lighting designer because I was in love with live theater, where lighting only exists in real time as part of the performance. Certainly, it has a utilitarian role: to put enough light on the stage so that the audience can see the actors. But the lighting also helps shape the performance by providing the color and overtones that add meaning and layers and depth. The same mix of art and technology, craft and discipline exists in user interface design.

Fast forward a few years, and it’s another tense meeting. Our demo was part of a presentation to the board of directors who were voting on whether to fund a new multimedia news service, but the video encoding was taking longer than we expected, and we weren’t sure if the bookmark feature would be intuitive enough. More late nights and it all came together. Another project launched.

As different as my two careers may seem from the outside, I never thought they were so different. Switching from theater design to interface design, I traded a forty-foot wide proscenium for one that was just seventeen inches across, and the big gestures of the stage for the more subtle movement of a hand on a mouse.

Are we all on the same team?
One thing that software and theater have in common is how many different skills are required. There are individual performance artists who pretty much do it all — write, direct, design, perform — creating perfect gems of performances, just like there are personal websites conceived and created by a single person. But most productions are the results of work by dozens of different people. At the center is the director, surrounded by the production team: designers, choreographer, and musical directors. Each of them has a team of people to create the design. It takes a lot of collaboration to keep everyone’s work in sync. We used to ask, “Are we all designing the same show?”

Sometimes we weren’t. When there was no shared vision–no overall design concept — I would end up in a situation like trying to light a musical comedy with a brown set and dark, brown wool costumes. Brown wool soaks up all the light and dulls the production’s sparkle. The lights may be bright and the actors perky, but the whole effect doesn’t hang together, and the audience can always tell.

But when all the elements work together, the effect is profound.

On the opening night of a new opera that I lit, the curtain opened on a scene that looked just like the pencil sketches from our design brainstorming sessions. Everything had come together to bring that vision to life. It wasn’t just that the stage looked like the picture. A performer told me that it felt like the only place where that opera could possibly take place, that it just “felt right” to be singing that story on that stage.

Original sketch for Tomorrow and Tomorrow   Actual scene from for Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Original sketches and the actual scene for “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Timothy Sullivan Center for Contemporary Opera, 1987. This one-act opera is an interior monologue, recounting an unhappy and lonely life. Directed by Stephen Jarrett. Scenery by Robert Edmonds. Lighting by Whitney Quesenbery. With Suzan Hanson.

A theatrical production includes several teams of people. Just in the physical production alone, there are scenery, lighting, costume and sound designers, supported by carpenters, electricians, drapers and a whole raft of craft shops to build and install the sets, props, effects and lights. As many as 50 craftspeople may be working in a theater just a day before opening night. That’s a lot of people, especially for the speed with which shows are produced. The collaboration works only because the roles and responsibilities are well defined and respected.

Despite all my years away from theater, I could still draw a competent light plot. It would not reflect all the new equipment and the design would probably look out of style, but an electrician would still understand it. The design artifacts communicate not only within a single craft, but between disciplines, and they are the language of the collaboration.

We are just beginning to understand all of the roles in designing the user experience. From the brand design that expresses the promise to the user interface that communicates it to the code that supports the functionality and interaction, all of the designers need to be speaking with one voice and a language that lets them work together.

Light plot Cue sheet
There is a standard set of paper work, or design artifacts, that includes the light plot, hookup, cue sheets and, to help the designer, a magic sheet.

If you can’t find it… it might as well not be there.
A lot of the work of putting on a play is simple craft. In lighting design, that means putting all the pieces together in a technically competent way so circuits don’t blow, lights don’t fall, and fire laws are followed. You need to have the lights placed so the entire stage can be lit, effects can be created… and the budget met. Finally, after all the planning and preparation, you go into the theater and create the cues — the looks, timing, and changes in the lighting — and coordinate them with the work of the actors and the other designers. And here, you get a few moments for inspiration and art.

When those moments come, it’s easy to forget that it’s not all about the lighting. The audience comes to see the play, and your work is just one part of the whole thing. Pursue gorgeous chiaroscuro at the expense of illumination and you get lighting that creates an effect of dark shapes. “The ones at the top that don’t move… those are the scenery. The shapes moving at the bottom… those are the actors.” When that happens, the designer has forgotten that, as important as the design is, the audience doesn’t come for the lighting or leave “singing the scenery.” Worse, instead of being wowed, they may just be baffled. It’s hard to hear when you can’t see the actors’ faces, and the brilliant nuances of the design are probably lost on an audience that came for the play.

I used to wonder why so many experienced professionals couldn’t get it right on the first try. Why were scripts that seemed so obviously bad on opening night ever produced? Wasn’t the very heart of the profession being able to visualize the results in advance? But what you can’t see in advance is how it will all fit together. You are supposed to be designing not only the same show, but the one the audience wants to see. That’s why those preview performances are so important: they give the production a chance to add the audience to the collaboration and to knit all the elements together more tightly.

Usability testing… coming to a theater near you
When you’ve worked on a show for several weeks, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to walk in the door and spend two hours seeing the performance unfold. You know all the nuances and characters and turns of plot. But what’s the experience like for an average audience? In software design, the solution to this dilemma is usability testing. In theater, it’s previews. A production used to have out-of-town tryouts. A show would play in smaller cities, testing the production in front of live (and paying) audiences until it was ready for Broadway. Other plays are developed in workshop or regional theater productions. Either way, it gives everyone a chance to see the play “on its feet” and make changes before they face the New York critics. It’s a nightly, elaborate usability test, as audience reaction is scrutinized and the production adjusted (whether minor changes or massive rewrites) until it all works for the audience.

One year, the Big Apple Circus included a famous clown, a top star of the one-ring European circus, with an act that was completely different from the red-nose physical humor of American clowns. His first night, he bombed. The kids just stared at him with no laughs and hardly even a giggle. We all waited for the tantrum, for the star to blame the audience. Instead, the next morning, while we were working on the lights, he brought his trunk into the ring and quietly rehearsed. That night, he got a few laughs, and over the next days he continued to work, changing some bits, dropping some, adding new ones. By the end of the week, he was getting the big laughs and the applause. He didn’t do it by abandoning his style of clowning, but by listening carefully to the audience and learning how to speak to them.

A play is different to everyone who sees it, just like an interface is different to every user. The interaction between the performers and the audience is part of the magic. Software is like that to me: a dance between person and machine, different in small, subtle ways every time, something that comes to life only in the user experience. It’s not surprising that when I was seduced away from theater by a small beige box, it was to design the user interface. The interface is live in the interaction, taking place in real time.

For more information

Want to know more about theatrical design? The two books I have read and re-read are:

Each was a pioneer, changing our vision of how theater is made.

Whitney Quesenbery designs user interfaces for Cognetics Corporation, a design and usability company dedicated to creating excellent user experiences. She is the manager of the STC Usability SIG and a member of the board of directors for UPA.