IDEA 2009: An Interview with Leisa Reichelt

Posted by

As IDEA 2009 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Director of Events and Marketing for the IAI, I fill a variety of roles and lead the charge for the IDEA Conference this year, as well as get to Interview the IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Greg Corrin in this case).

For this interview, I was able to ask a few questions with Leisa Reichelt. If her name is not familiar to you, it’s possible you’ve heard of the term "ambient intimacy" that she coined (and frankly, is quite too often NOT cited as the source for that).  You can learn more about Leisa online at disambiguity where she blogs. You can also be on the lookout for Drupal 7; I hear she had a thing or to do with that…

Where do you go and what do you do to recharge, find inspiration, or renew your creativity?

I think the most guaranteed way to get myself into an inspired and creative state is to spend a few hours in an art museum – I particularly love being so close to the Tate Modern in London, but just remembering visits I’ve made to the Pompidou, the Guggenheim in NYC & Venice (I am a complete sucker for the Modernists) and I can almost feel my mind open up and think about what the future could be like and all the different ways to approach communicating what we’re thinking and feeling and believing.

At the completely other end of the scale, I also draw a huge amount of inspiration from my Twitter network and the tiny little nuggets of ideas, ourselves, and what we make of our world. I’ve also recently taken up crochet as a way to try to switch myself off for an hour or so in the evening – it is kind of like my equivalent to meditation, I guess.

And the other thing I find really valuable is to travel and spend time in different parts of the world. It is so easy to think that there is only one way of living, of seeing the world, and the best possible antidote to that is travel – I think that it is incredibly important as a designer to remind myself that ‘my way’ is just one of very many, and it is alarming how quickly we can forget this if we continue to surround ourselves with everything that is familiar.

As a parent, I often find myself “accidentally” teaching categorization and sorting to my kids. As a parent, do you ever find yourself trying to teach some tricks of the trade to your child?

Ha ha! No, not yet. I’m just trying to get him to put everything into one container at the moment (my boy is 18 months old and resisting the concept of ‘cleaning up’).

At this point it is all about him teaching me, actually. I have an iPhone that he has been using for a few months now, initially just as a music player for his nursery rhymes when we were in the car, but now he has several programs on the phone that are there specifically for him (Koi Pond, Bubbles and Peekaboo Barn for parents with iPhones – I recommend them!) I am constantly astounded at how skilled he is at interacting with my iPhone – not only for the applications that are designed for someone like him, but he can actually find the application on the phone, launch it, hit ‘Start’ (not settings) – I think it’s amazing and it makes me think a lot about what the world will be like for him, where these kinds of interactions will be a part of every moment of the life that he can remember. It’s exciting!

Drupal is many things; in addition to being a content management system it can be used for social networking and community organizing—how are you and the Drupal community working to make it better at supporting social interactions and experiences?

For the Drupal 7 release, the main thing that we’re trying to do is to make the Drupal platform and the wide range of tools that it makes available for social interaction and community building online more widely accessible to non-developers. At the moment, it can be a pretty daunting experience for someone who is new to Drupal or who doesn’t have a developer background and we’re trying to improve that experience by developing a system wide design that is more focussed on the ‘content creator’ role than it has been in the past. We’re not specifically aiming to make it better at supporting social interactions & experiences, but I do hope that is one of the outcomes of the work we do.

As a designer for a prominent open source community project, what have you found to be the keys to success in working with open source developers, specifically on the usability and experience fronts?

Ah, I’m not sure that we have yet found the keys to success – it is a big journey for everyone involved. Some things that have worked well though has been to clearly articulate some goals and/or principles for the project that can be easily repeated by the community throughout the project (for example, some of ours are to ‘focus on the content creator’, the ‘design for the 80% rule’, and the ‘use smart defaults’ rules) – defining these early on really helps people understand the direction you’re heading in, and then later on, helps you to explain why you’re suggesting approaches that may be unexpected.

Sharing the way that we work, I think, has also been very useful – we (Mark Boulton & I) really wanted to avoid any sense of design ‘mystique’ and to really show what designers do, how we work, the processes and methods we use. I think this does two good things – it helps people understand why designs are they way that they are, but it also makes design and designers more approachable and understandable, and perhaps even encourages some people to start integrating some of our practices into their own way of working. For example, I know that since we did the ‘crowdsourced usability testing’ and really made the process of doing a short usability test really transparent, there are some developers in the community who now actually do some observational research as a part of their practice now, which I think is beyond excellent.

We’ve also had to learn to shape the way that we work to suit the community a little – we need to be ready to explain, in detail and often, the rationale behind almost every pixel on a page. This is pretty heavy going at times, and not really a great way to get design implemented, but it really has made sure that we’ve really thought through why things are designed the way they are – it makes for a very thoughtful process.

I know many of my friends who are developers are excited—and possibly a bit nervous about the next version of Drupal being released. How do you think members of the UX community will receive it?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I’m nervous too!

Anyone who has been following the process on should know what to expect because we’ve been posting screenshots of the work for months and the overall principles of the design of the next version have been out on the table since about April this year. I really believe that the user experience of Drupal 7 will be a significant step forward, and will make the experience of using Drupal for content creators and ‘clients’ of Drupal developers much, much better.

Having said that, there is a lot that we would have liked to have done to make Drupal 7 a truly game-changing release that we weren’t able to get over the bar. We had really hoped that with Drupal 7 non-developers would be able to build a site of reasonable sophistication that looked good within 30 mins of installing Drupal, and I don’t believe we’re going to achieve that goal this time around. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve achieved, though, considering the speed at which we’ve had to work and the complexities associated with the project – I hope it sets a good benchmark for what can be achieved when designing with a community.

You are currently in the UK, but have worked in Australia and on multi-national projects in the past. How important is local knowledge and understanding of cultural nuance in the design of social interactions online?

This is such a tough question and I go back and forth on it all the time. In some ways it is incredibly important and in other ways it is amazing how unimportant it is. I think it depends a lot on what you’re socialising around.

I think that if you are designing anything for cultures that you’re not native to – whether that be another country or an existing community – you really need to try to immerse yourself in that culture and to make sure that you’ve got a lot of great access to natives of that culture to help you make good decisions and avoid dumb oversights.

Having said that, I also think that we have much more in common, universally, and that there is a lot to be said for focussing on that.

Language is the real kicker though. I quite often have other English speakers (in the UK and US) look at me as though I’m speaking a foreign language and I realise that I’ve inadvertently slipped into speaking ‘Australia’ – I can’t even tell what is ‘Australian’ and what is not because I always thought I was just speaking ‘English’ – what a myth that is! (I’m also waiting to see if you’re going to change all my s’s into z’s when this is published!)

So many of the times that I’ve witnessed disagreements and hostility arise in an online community, the culprit has been language – mostly because so many of the important discussions are held in English only, and people are forced to engage using a non-native language – sometimes things come across entirely differently to how they are intended because the original intent gets lost in translation. Assuming best intent is such an old guideline but one of the most important and one that I’ve clung to over the past 12 months or so!

Do you think online communities culturally assimilated by virtue of the medium or still strongly affected by state and regional norms of culture and behavior?

This is a great question and I had to ask my Twitter network what we seemed to agree on.

1. see above re: language (see, I told you it’s the real kicker!) – language is the most likely reason for us to cluster online in a geographically influenced way which creates an environment where state and regional norms are likely to prevail, however; 2. it’s an ongoing negotiation and changes over time and is different from network to network (Anthony Gedden’s work on the Theory of Structuration is worth checking out if this is an area you’re interested in)

My experience has been that the more mature, geographically diverse and subject focussed the online community, the more likely they are to have a culture and behaviour that is unique to itself and to the more general ‘medium’ of ‘online community’ than it is to the norms of the individual participants ‘offline’ cultures. It is a constantly shifting environment though and endlessly subject to change both as the number and characteristics of its constituents varies, and also as particular behaviours are imposed onto the community (I’m thinking of how communications have to change in order to include participants who don’t read code, for example – one of the shifts that the Drupal community has been making in recent times).


About Leisa Reichelt

Leisa Reichelt is a freelance design researcher & user experience designer who has worked with global brands, innovative startups and open source communities to help them deliver great online experiences for their customers and community members.

You can learn more about Leisa on the Speakers Page and the Program Page of the IDEA Conference website.

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access) 2009: Social Experience Design

IDEA2009 brings together the world’s foremost thinkers and practitioners: sharing the big ideas that inspire, along with practical solutions for the ways people’s lives and systems are converging to affect society.

These days, you can’t be socially engaging without considering the experience design. IDEA2009 brings together like-minded people who want to continue the exploration of Social Experience Design.


  1. Russ & Leisa, thanks for this interview. Very interesting to hear about the emphasis on user experience within the Drupal admin and authoring environment. I feel Drupal and WordPress are at the heart of a major shift in digital publishing and it’s hard to imagine a more important or noble place for a designer to work these days.

  2. Thanks for an interesting interview.
    I have been to IDEA 2008 in Chicago – And I would like to point out that I can firmly recommend to visit this event, everyone will find something or better a lot useful and relevant in this load of information.
    I hope there will be plenty recordings and summaries of the talks. Because I can’t attend this year.
    I wish you all success and fun for IDEA 2009!

  3. Great interview. I’m really looking forward to the final release of Drupal 7. I’ve started with Drupal 6 and it’s definitely an awesome CMS, but D7 and Mark & Leisa’s UX expertise will really bring it all together.

    FYI Design in the Open is a social network that Leisa created for open source designers. It’s a growing community and hopefully we’ll see even more participation in the coming months.

  4. Thanks this was interesting! I guess you’re referring to Anthony Giddens. Recommended to anyone interested in modern society 🙂

  5. Interesting how someone with a flair for programming can find inspiration and creativity by visiting a museum! It goes to show you that great minds reach beyond their comfort zone to appreciate and embrace more then just one form of creativity.

Comments are closed.