The Making of a Discipline: The Making of a Title

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This year I published a book, titled ‘Experience Design‘, based on not so much an emerging field but an emerging mindset: a growing awareness that the most powerful experiences cross traditional professional boundaries, and that we as designers of experiences must pursue our work with the big picture in mind. Indeed, effective Experience Design encompasses myriad fields, from online to desktop, from print to exhibits, from interaction design to copywriting, from brand management to theme park ride design.

Information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the new titles—“instructional designer” or “interface designer”—sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age.

The shining examples of pan-media experience design—Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola and Star Trek to name a few—might make this seem straightforward. However, many people who work within the design field have had a hard time assimilating the full scope of Experience Design—and a harder time accepting their niches within it. The reasons for this resistance uncover much about the state of design as well as the state of identity—that’s personal identity, not corporate identity.

A title is born

A little history might help here. Around 1989 or 1990, back in the days before an interactive media industry—yes, before QuickTime even—there was a very small community of information designers. Most of these people came from the print world. They worked on a variety of projects, including complex signage, directories, catalogs and information systems. Many of these designers bore the titles “instructional designer” or “interface designer.”

The larger design community had trouble understanding and accepting this field, as it was decidedly more obscure and conceptual than traditional graphic design. However, information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the titles sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age. The more savvy traditional designers learned new techniques and applied them to these new concerns, but many others simply adopted the titles without learning much of anything.

Unfortunately, this was not the last time designers would update their business cards without a commensurate upgrade in skills.

The information design community owes its founding largely to Richard Saul Wurman. He was the first to identify the issues of clarity, meaning and understandability in the print world, as well as some of the techniques designers could use to organize data and create information (as in informing). He communicated these principles both inside and outside the design community, and he firmly established information design as a measurable benefit to both communication and business. Through his company, TheUnderstandingBusiness (which was established in 1987 and where I was fortunate to work for a few years) he and his designers defined many of the techniques and processes that would become information design.

The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

To be sure, there were others practicing what can be considered information design. Siegel & Gale, a design firm based in New York City, was redesigning and rewriting documents and forms—even tax forms—to make them easier to use (they called this approach “plain English”). Edward Tufte had written the successful book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” and Massimo Vignelli had declared himself an information designer as well. Things were looking good—or maybe “clear” is a more appropriate word here.

However, fairly quickly, many visual designers who merely wanted to decorate data (think chartjunk) also declared themselves information designers. As I remember, the information design world was fairly accepting. If there had been an information design table, places were available for everyone who wanted a seat. Information designers didn’t exactly equate visual styling with hard-core information design, so they might have seated visual designers at the end of the table. But at least everyone was included at the table.

About this time, Wurman started using the term Information Architect, a rearrangement of the phrase Architecture of Information, which he coined at the 1972 Aspen Design Conference. In terms of skills, practice, process and expectations, the term Information Architect described the existing fields of information design and visual design. It was simply a new label invented for the purpose of elevating the profession as a whole in the eyes of a population that wasn’t particularly design savvy. The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

About this time the internet started commanding the majority of work in the interactive industry. Luckily, my company, vivid studios, as well as a few others (such as Clement Mok Designs) had already translated our information design skills from print to interactive media. Information design was already part of our development processes. Of course, we had to teach every client what information design was, what it accomplished, and why it had to be in the budget. We published widely on our sites not only our job descriptions and processes, but also our theories. This is how information design crossed into the interactive world, where it was wholeheartedly accepted and has been firmly rooted ever since.

Gold rush

It didn’t take long for people with innate skills and applicable experience to find their way into the interactive field, but it was still one of the rarest of professions since no one could find classes, let alone degrees, in information design. Eventually the flood of dotcom startups required so many information designers that anyone who could draw a flowchart was soon hired and given the title (to the eventual dismay of many clients).

It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

I guess it’s inevitable with a fast-growing field that the very people who were pouring in from other places began to rapidly mark not only their turf, but everyone else’s as well. About two years ago, the slight schism between visual decoration and information design opened into a gulf between the information architects, who claimed the best, most strategic and most cognitive aspects of information design, and the information designers, who were relegated by these titans to follow tactical instructions, perform menial tasks, and, generally, make the least contributions to the structuring of information and experiences. Make no mistake here, this was a political and strategic attempt to elevate a strata of people who would, hopefully, become the elite of the information designers: The architects were to designers as traditional architects were to interior designers.

I have witnessed many times the attempts of information architects to trump information designers simply by title alone—as if anyone actually understands the difference between the two. In fact, almost all processes, techniques and tasks are shared. (The only useful differentiation between the roles occurs at the personal level, where each person’s skills must be weighed against a project’s requirements. This, of course, is exactly the point where differentiation makes sense.)

There seems to be an opinion that information architecture applies exclusively to online media, that offline media can’t possibly pose problems as complex or as important. For sure, many large online projects can get complex, but I have yet to encounter an online project as complex or important as some of those I saw at TheUnderstandingBusiness. I also see information architects rushing to define the field in steps and techniques that are tactical at best. Most of the designers I worked with—and was taught by—at TheUnderstandingBusiness still approach problems from a higher conceptual level (and generate much more sophisticated and original solutions) than most of the architects in a hurry to separate themselves at the top of the profession. And most in this former group still go by the title, information designer.

That brings us back to Experience Design—or is it Architecture? For a field that is barely even two years old, the exact same egomaniacal process is starting but, this time, with even less substance. I sat through a presentation last year of Experience Architecture which, as far as I could tell, had no new insights, processes, or techniques to offer other than what would already be covered (or uncovered) in Experience Design. The only reason for this title was to differentiate this one company’s offering. It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

Can you imagine a group of Fashion Architects declaring their supremacy over Fashion Designers? Yes, that’s what we’ve come to. We don’t yet have enough respect as it is from clients and engineers and we’ve almost completely lost the ear of corporate leaders. Imagine if they found out how shallow and vain the profession is turning?

While IA and ID battle each other for dominance, Visual (or Graphic) design seems to have already lost. Case in point, at the fourth annual AIGA Advance for Design workshop last year the following roles were identified for discussion:

  • Design Planner
  • Brand Strategist
  • User Researcher
  • Visual Systems Designer
  • Information Architect/Information Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Usability Specialist

You will not find “Visual Designer” or “Graphic Designer” in that list. The closest thing was Visual Systems Designer, which the organizers insisted is far more elaborate than mere graphic design. To make matters worse, the role of Visual Systems Designer was quickly perverted into Visual Information Designer, which became nearly synonymous with Information Architect, a separately identified role.

This circuitous examination may be pointless, but at least it isn’t frightening. What’s scary is the fact that there were no defined places for visual/graphic design, animation, interface design, typography, videography, sound design or any of the other important fields that synthesize all of the decisions and breathe life into the interface. At least one visual designer there started feeling there wasn’t a place for her at all in the community. Perhaps, in our need to define new horizons, we’re forgetting our roots.

What’s in a name

As a field trying to define ourselves, we’ve already elevated our status so far that we don’t have time for tactics or work. Only the most strategic of activities and the most important thoughts warrant our attention.

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying.

OK, it may not be this bad yet, but it’s certainly the direction we’re heading. Imagine discounting the joy of visual expression—the satisfaction that comes from balancing the cognitive, engineering, and emotional goals of a project so well that their recognition falls away and all that is left is a powerful visual solution. Imagine telling audio engineers and videographers (also key partners in the creation of many experiences) they aren’t a part of the process unless they can describe themselves as audio strategists and video systems designers. Now imagine trying to finish a project yourself after these professionals have left in disgust.

We started calling our “creative” group at vivid the Experience Group in 1994, partly for these reasons. We adopted the new name because it had the right mix of ambiguity and newness that stunned people long enough to hear our definition, and it avoided many of the problems with other names—especially “Creative Group.”

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying. When used in this sense, “we need to get some creative” or “we should hire some creatives,” the word marginalizes and devalues the contributions that front-end and “artsy” people make. When people actually refer to themselves as “creatives,” I pity them. I learned a long time ago that everyone in a company better be creative and that the most creative person at vivid was the CFO.

All of this reminds me of my experiences at the CHI (Computer Human Interface) conferences. CHI is a special interest group within the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). It was nearly impossible to get a design-oriented paper, panel, or speech accepted as part of the CHI program.

For the most part, the only people deemed fit for the program were a) well-known members who happened to be designers or researchers and b) interface specialists who were now turning their attention to “design.” Courses, papers, and panels reviewed by the CHI leadership routinely came back with comments like “is this important?,” “isn’t there a better conference for these issues?,” “this doesn’t seem to be in the scope of CHI,” and “there isn’t much of scientific value here.”

I stopped going to CHI conferences in 1990. It was apparent that the ruling class not only couldn’t recognize new fields and techniques in design, but wouldn’t.

Experience Design is threatened by the same sort of shortsightedness and exclusivity. Are we going to succumb to infighting, name-calling, and endless arguments over definitional minutia, or are we going to expand our sights—and our boundaries—to include all of the elements we need to create dazzling—and valuable—experiences?

The most eloquent description of Experience Design I’ve read comes not from the design world but from a New York City restaurant reviewer named Gael Greene. In an interview with Matthew Goodman in the June 2001 issue of Brill’s Content, she said:

“I thought a restaurant review should describe what your experience was like from the moment you called to make a reservation. Were they rude? Did they laugh at you for trying to get a table? …”

That’s what it’s all about: the complete experience, beginning to end, from the screen to the store, to the ride and beyond.

Lee McCormack assisted with this piece. He is a writer, editor and information architect/designer/whatever. He currently plies his trade at AltaVista.

CEOs Are From Mars…

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I’m pretty much a professional half-breed. You see, with both a television production background and an M.B.A., I have spent the past 20 years trying to bridge, heal, soothe, mend and otherwise repair the pervasive gap that divides “suits” and “creatives” in the business world. Along the way, I’ve played a number of roles including ringmaster, referee, coach, ambassador and even secret agent.

In an ideal world, both sides would meet in the middle and split the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

What I’ve learned is that the antagonism, hostility and resentment often felt on both sides of the equation is the outgrowth of a basic failure to understand what makes the other side tick.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
I used to believe that hard-core businesspeople actually understood their Photoshop-toting colleagues but chose, proactively and aggressively, to dismiss their skills, capabilities and talents as inconsequential fluff. The truth is much worse: many businesspeople simply don’t have the slightest idea what separates “good creative” from “bad creative.”

I’ve had executives admit to me that they couldn’t tell the difference between two competing portfolios, designs or layouts if their lives depended on it. At the same time, it’s fair to say that many designers are equally oblivious to the underlying business issues that drive decision-making in their organizations.

But, here’s the catch: design teams are the ones most likely to lose out when business requirements clash head-on with design imperatives. Because executives must stay focused on bottom-line results, aesthetic elements that seem indirectly related to the company’s business goals are easily dismissed in the corner office.

The hard part is that these design imperatives are, many times, a large part of the bottom-line results. To bridge the gap that divides business and design teams, it’s important that IAs and designers:

  • understand and respect the fundamentally different world views that separate them from most business managers,
  • commit to meeting business managers halfway (or more) when it’s time to define and articulate project goals and expectations, and
  • commit to educating themselves more completely about business issues, ideas and trends.

The view from the corner office
Try to put yourself in the CEO’s natty suede loafers for a moment: As the keepers of the fiscal flame in an organization, most executives are, understandably, more focused on the more quantitative elements of a corporation’s daily life.

They’re tasked specifically with both generating revenue and saving costs. And, at the end of the day, will be measured and compensated (or penalized!) by results that are summarized at the end of each quarter on a spreadsheet. Qualitative factors including user experience, design, content strategy and customer experience are considered a means to reach end-of-year financial goals, not an end unto themselves.

In fact, compared to complex quantitative calculations and projections, design and content architecture issues seem relatively straightforward and simple. With no spreadsheet to consult, final decisions about design, customer experience and navigation elements might seem to be based on personal preferences, favorite colors and an armchair quarterback’s appreciation of what’s stylish and hip.

Most quantitatively-focused managers simply don’t comprehend the relationship between business strategy and customer experience, or how design and content architecture serve to facilitate and articulate strategic corporate goals in the marketplace. And, without a clearly articulated business rationale to support IA and design priorities, they never will.

Finding the middle ground
Most deadly of all is every businessperson’s deep-seated allegiance to their own creative point of view. As I learned in business school, you can never convince a “qualitatively challenged” M.B.A. that a) they can’t write, b) they have limited people skills, c) their PowerPoint slides are dull, or d) they have no creative aptitude.

Redefining user experience issues in terms of business impacts and “domino effects” empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command.

Make no mistake: when it comes to design and customer experience issues, most business managers have stretched themselves as far across the divide as they’re capable. In an ideal world, this would mean meeting their IA teams in the middle and basically splitting the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

In this context, it becomes imperative for IAs and designers to take action to close the gap. And while this may mean that design teams have to take on more than their “fair share” of the burden, it’s important to not lose sight of the overall goal: delivering the best work possible.

By learning to frame creative issues in business terms and to draw meaningful connections between design efforts and the corporation’s bottom line, design teams and their projects are more likely to survive the corporate gauntlet.

The intersection of art and commerce
First, it’s important to take a close look at the organization from the inside out. Understand who’s writing the check for the project and what results they are being held accountable for. Ask:

  • How do project goals connect to the overall mission of the organization (if at all)?
  • Who stands to benefit from the project’s success?
  • What expectations—right or wrong—are associated with the project?
  • How long will it take the organization to see a return on their investment in the project?
  • How will the projects success and/or failure be measured at a corporate level?

For example, many corporate websites are created, primarily, to reduce costs associated with customer service (e.g., call centers, product documentation, software upgrades). To that end, the extent to which call center volume decreases and use of web-based tools or FAQs increases provides management with some indication of the site’s effectiveness.

Then, consider your project and the organization from an “outside in” perspective. Ask:

  • Are internally-driven corporate goals aligned with real customer needs?
  • Which customer needs is the project meant to address?
  • How are your company’s competitors responding to these emerging needs?
  • How will the new project impact other stakeholders (e.g., vendors, partners)?
  • How is success defined in this larger context?
  • Are there any related examples in your industry (or in other industries) that you can reference and learn from?
  • Have similar initiatives worked for other companies?

In the case of the customer service-focused website described above, it would be important to understand whether or not users are likely to accept a new form of customer service. Would an online option solve a problem for them or cause additional complications?

Armed with these two critical perspectives, a design team can begin to craft arguments that are solution-oriented and in line with the corporation’s bottom line.

Returning to the online customer service solution one last time, a business-savvy design team would focus on those elements that have the greatest impact on a user’s customer service needs. In this case, superior content, information architecture and user interface design are critical to the customer’s ability to find information and, by extension, solve the immediate problem that brought them to the site in the first place. If a customer in need becomes confused by the site’s navigation or search capabilities, they will never return to the site. By extension, their opinion of a company offering such a sloppy and incomplete solution will surely diminish.

Defining these kinds of business issues and “domino effects” also empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command. By anticipating questions and providing managers with the language to describe each design choice and associated business solution, projects are more likely to be spared endless rounds of questioning and negotiation.

And don’t forget to embrace and support those rare business managers who actually understand and support of your design team’s issues. These managers can be terrific allies and can also serve as a resource while you’re crafting the business case for your project.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste
You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation. On an ongoing basis, make a personal commitment to increase your general understanding of business issues, ideas and trends.

You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation.

By taking the time to study various industries and macro business issues, it becomes clear that there are business basics that drive every company. By finding parallels and lessons in other industries, you can begin to make better sense of your organization’s issues and challenges.

Understanding, for example, that Southwest Airlines actually considers its primary competitors to be railroads and bus lines (versus other regional airlines) not only provides you with insight into their business strategy, but also offers a great lesson in thinking more broadly about the dynamics of your business.

Begin picking up a Wall Street Journal once a week or, very simply, browsing the business section of your local newspaper. For more in-depth stories, the Harvard Business Review, despite it’s lofty and journal-like appearance, is a wholly approachable and practical source for new ideas, case studies and best practices across a number of industries. In fact, I have often recommended an article called “The Ultimate Creativity Machine: How BMW Turns Art Into Profit” from the January 2001 issue. It describes the challenges faced by the head of BMW’s German design studio as he seeks to ride the line between aesthetic, engineering and business requirements. For yet another look at emerging business trends, monthly magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0 scour the world for the most innovative and radical new ideas, companies and executives.

Business classes and seminars offer an opportunity to connect with other students to share new ideas. They are also a valuable resource for expanding your network of professional resources. This face-to-face interaction is critical. Imagine trying to learn a new language without having someone else to talk to.

Can’t we all just get along?
Remember that corporations are living, breathing ecosystems that are given life by the people who populate them. By making a conscious effort to focus on the big picture and bridge the gaps that divide the organization, you are contributing to a company’s overall success and, along the way, making your day-to-day working life, ultimately, a little less stressful.

Alma Derricks is the founder and principal of REV, a unique business strategy consultancy that provides firms imaginative strategic guidance, new revenue-creation models and fresh insight into what motivates and inspires customers. She can be reached directly at .

Learning from the “Powers of Ten”

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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

Got Usability? Talking with Jakob Nielsen

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Photo of Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen is the usability guru who hardly needs an introduction. But for the sake of completeness we’ll mention he’s the co-founder of the California-based consultancy, Nielsen Norman Group, and has been crusading against bad web design for years through his biweekly column, The Alertbox, and his numerous books. He’s brought usability to the attention of the general public, but within the user experience community he’s been criticized by those who say he emphasizes a puritanical view of utilitarianism that excludes other dimensions of user experience. Oh, and did we mention he’s the man who launched a thousand parody sites?

So is Nielsen the defender of ease-of-use or the enemy of creativity? We talked to the controversial Dane, and you might be surprised…

B&A: What are some of the toughest design challenges on the web today?

Nielsen: I think to get a really big jump in usability, because I think we can make a website that can show a few things quite well, if you have a few products. We can also do a huge database and you can search it, and it works reasonably well.

But I don’t think we really have a handle on getting the average person through the vast number of things that a website can offer. If you narrow it down and show a few things, yes, if you assume that they are capable doing a lot of data manipulation. But I think there’s a large number of cases that do not fall into one of those two categories. You can go to CNN and see the five big headlines of the day, and that works fairly well. You can go to Amazon and you can buy my book, for example, if you know the name of the book. But in the intermediate case of having a website with 10,000 articles and finding the one that’s right for you, which is quite often the case on a tech support website … basically doesn’t work at all.

B&A: What types of research interest you the most?

Nielsen: How to get usability out to the masses. When I say masses, I mean web designers, not users. Right now we have about 30 million websites, and we will have up to 100 million in three to five years. That’s a large number of design projects. How many usability people are there in the world who are in any way qualified? At the most, maybe 10,000 or so.

Therefore, we know that we’re not going to have this number of web projects done according to the recommended old methodology. So, even what I’ve been pushing in the past—more efficient, quick usability methodologies—is not good enough when you have that number of design projects. We need to have several orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of usability to really impact that number of design projects. Can we do things like encapsulate usability knowledge in guidelines such that an average designer can actually apply them?

B&A: What do you feel is the relationship between a usability professional and a designer?

Nielsen: I think they could play two different roles: either that of an editor and a writer, or a professor and a student.

In the more integrated projects, which is the preferred way to do it, I think it’s more like the editor and the writer, where the designer will come up with things just as the writer would write the article, and the editor will make it better, will know what the readers need and how to present it in a good way and help the writer improve their article. I have never met a professional writer who didn’t like to have a good editor. There often seems to be a conflict between designers and usability people, but I think that once you conceptualize it as the usability person helping to improve the design, then I think it goes away.

But you’re going to have a lot of designers who don’t have a usability professional in their team. So the vast majority of them just have to learn what the principles are that work well with users from usability professionals, and then it becomes more of an educational mission. So the relationship is more like that of the professor and the student. The student is the one who has to go do it at the end of the day, but the professor is the one who has the knowledge, having had done all the research in the past and can tell the student what works well.

B&A: How do you react to designers who have strong feelings about usability in one way or another?

Nielsen: I think that designers that don’t want usability are misguided because it’s really just a way of helping them achieve a better design. Some of them just reject the goal of having a design that’s easy to use. If you have the goal of a design as actually trying to accomplish something, then you’re more in the art world, and if the project doesn’t have a goal, then maybe it’s appropriate—design for design’s sake. But if you do design to actually accomplish something, then I’d argue that it has to be easy to use, so I don’t think that it’s appropriate to reject the goal of usability if your project has to accomplish something. Design is creating something that has a purpose in life; art is creating for the sake of creating — that’s my distinction between those two terms.

Whether they want to get usability from someone who knows about it, or whether they want to find it out themselves … can be debatable. How did any of us become usability specialists in the first place? Only by doing a lot of the research and studies. Any designer could do that as well if they bothered. They don’t have to get it from us, but then I would argue that they would need to do it themselves.

B&A: Is there a particular reason you advocate for using guidelines? I’ve heard people say that it comes off as overly dogmatic to simply have a huge list of guidelines.

Nielsen: Experience says that usually these work — usually, but not always. Usability guidelines always need to be applied with a certain amount of understanding as to when they apply and when they don’t apply. If a set of guidelines is written well, then usually they will apply, and it will be the exception when they don’t apply. You have to acknowledge that on one hand it may be that only 90 percent of the guidelines apply … so you can’t violate all guidelines, you can only violate some if you have a good reason to do so.

Some people may not understand the difference between a guideline and a standard. A standard is something that is 100 percent firm, and a guideline is something that is usually right — that’s why it’s called a guideline.

B&A: What’s the difference between a standard, a guideline, and a heuristic?

Nielsen: You get even more vague when you get into the area of heuristics. Heuristics are things that are rules of thumb, so they are very vague and very broad. At the same time, they are very powerful, because they can explain a lot of different phenomena, but that explanation has to be done with a lot of insight, and that is what’s more difficult. One of the lessons from a lot of my research is that heuristic evaluations indicate how to adjust an interface relative to these general principles of good usability. It’s fairly difficult to do well. Anybody could do it to some extent, but they couldn’t necessarily do it very well, and you have to have a large amount of experience to do it well.

On the average design project today, they don’t have that amount of usability expertise on their team, and therefore we’ve got to give them something more complete that it’s easier for them to deal with. It’s a matter of the usability of the usability principles, really. If we make them more specific, they become more concrete, they’re easier to interpret, and … easier for the designers to judge when they do not apply.

B&A: What’s the difference between someone doing a heuristic evaluation solo versus doing it in a team?

Nielsen: The way I developed heuristic evaluations back in the 1980s was meant to be an interaction between solo and the team, because you first do it individually, and then you combine a few people who have done the heuristic evaluation. That’s done very rarely, because it’s rare that a project team will have that many people on board who really know about usability.

“(I)t’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means.”

A common mistake about heuristics is thinking that it’s just a list of complaints. It’s not a list of complaints, it’s a list of issues relating back to the underlying fundamental principles. When you say that this button is wrong or this flows wrong, you say it’s wrong because it violates this well-known usability principle. And then, of course, people can argue. They can say, “no, it does not violate this principle,” and then you would have a discussion about that, which is a great method of illuminating and getting insight into the design.

B&A: What are the most important skills for a usability specialist to have?

Nielsen: I would say experience. It’s an unfortunate thing to say, because you can’t acquire experience other than by doing it. This is a discipline where you will always start off being bad and you end up being good. You only get to be good by slogging through several initial projects where you didn’t do that well, and then you get better and better. I think that being a truly great usability specialist comes from having 10 years of experience and having seen a very large number of different designs, different technologies, different types of users — a very broad variety of experience.

The benefit of usability, though, is that it is such a powerful method, and the return on investment is so huge that even if you don’t do that great a job at it —maybe you don’t get a return of 100-to-1 and you only get a return of 20-to-1 — that’s still a huge return investment. Even the very first usability project someone does, and they mess up everything, it’s still going to be positive, and it’s going to be a great learning experience for them personally, and their team is going to get value out of the investment as well. Just keep doing it and doing it and doing it.

It’s very much of an analytical and interpretive discipline as well. Intuition is completely the wrong word to use — it’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means. That’s where experience helps you — it helps you to do pattern matching and match patterns you’ve seen before, and the more things you’ve seen before, the better you can do that.

There’s definitely a big evangelizing and propaganda component as well, so having good communication skills is very important too.

B&A: Are there any usability specialists you particularly admire or whom you took guidance from?

Nielsen: I did actually. I’ll say that two of them are actually colleagues at my company, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. They are two incredibly great people. Another one I’d like to mention who’s now retired is John Gould. He worked at IBM in the 1980s. He developed a lot of the early approaches and for any question you could come up with he’d say, “OK, you can do a study of that.” He was just such an empirical guy that it was incredible.

Another person is Tom Landauer, who worked at Bell for many, many years. I was privileged to work with him for four years when I worked there as well. He was very much on the measurement side: “We can quantify this. We can estimate these things.”

I’d like to mention one more person … I never worked with, Ted Nelson, who was the guy who kind of invented hypertext. He got me into this feeling that we shouldn’t accept computers being difficult, that computers can be a personal empowerment tool. I read a lot of his writings when I was in grad school. His writing is really what got me going in this area in the first place back in the 1970s.

B&A: How many users do you yourself observe in the average month?

Nielsen: I probably sit with too few users, actually. Probably less than 10. It ought to be many more. In my own defense, I’ll say that I’ve done it for many years, and the learning is cumulative. I run a lot of projects where someone else will sit with the user, but I’ll still monitor very closely what goes on. I would still say that it’s very important to sit with the user as well. People should continue to do that forever — you never get enough of that. In particular, for someone who’s starting out in usability, I would say 20 or 30 a month would be a good goal to have, so that you can try to run a study every week.

B&A: Will there be new methodologies for user research in the future, or will we keep refining the ones we have right now?

Nielsen: I think mainly we will keep refining the ones we have. Of course, you never know if some completely new thing will come up, but I think it’s not likely. The classic methodology was developed in the 1970s and early 1980s. John Gould was one of the big people doing that and I learned a lot from him. That was pretty much established by then: how to do measurement studies and all that.

“Usability has very much seemed like a black art … Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.”

Then, in the late 1980s, I reacted a bit against my own mentors and said, “These are all great methods, but they take too long, and a lot of projects won’t do them if they’re not at a big, rich company like IBM.” So, we developed discount usability methodologies, which was a faster way of doing these things.

Since 1990 there hasn’t been that much change. I think it’s pretty slow-moving because it doesn’t relate to technology, which changes all the time. It relates to humans and the process of accommodating human needs, which doesn’t change very much.

B&A: Do you ever feel like discount usability methods can be misused?

Nielsen: I think there could be cases where someone does a heuristic without truly understanding the principles. Or you might have someone who tests one user and says, “Let’s go with that.” But in general I think that the methods are so powerful that they actually hold up pretty well even if they’re abused.

I read recently somebody who had criticized the idea of doing studies with a small number of users with the argument that you cannot judge the severity of the usability problems because you don’t have enough instances of observation to know the frequency with which it occurs. This is a circular argument, a self-fulfilling prophecy because you are accepting in their argument that the only way you can judge the severity of a problem is by having a statistically accurate assessment of it’s frequency. I’m arguing that after having had observed it a few times, you can, with the insight that comes from experience, estimate the severity pretty well — good enough anyway. The real issue in severity ratings is that you’ve got to do a cost-benefit analysis.

B&A: What’s your take on information architecture?

Nielsen: The first question I have is what it really even is. I tend to operate under the definition that it’s the structuring of an information space. I view that as being different from information design, which has to deal with how you present the information once you’ve found it, or interaction design, which is a matter of flow through a transaction or task. I know that some people like to use the words information architecture to apply to everything, which is what I would tend to call user experience. That’s purely a matter of what terminology you feel like using. I tend to think that user experience is built of these components: how are things structured, how it is presented, how do you flow through it, and other things like how is it advertised.

B&A: What’s next for you and the Nielsen Norman Group?

Nielsen: Trying to drive usability more broadly toward that larger set of design firms, really trying to encapsulate it to make it more portable. Usability has very much seemed like a black art. I myself have often said, “Well, you can just test that.” Well, that is true. Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.

There’s another trend as well which is tackling deeper issues that have been neglected in the past that need to be more in the forefront. Things like users with disabilities, international users, much more focus on task analysis and field studies — those are some of the other things we’re pushing now.

Recently I’ve been pushing the notion of doing discount field studies. Field studies don’t need to consist of five anthropologists taking a year to do a project. We’ve had a seminar at our conference on simplified field studies, which I personally think is a good seminar. But, empirical data shows that people don’t want to do this. You can go to the conference and see people crammed into sessions on everything else, but then you go into the field studies seminar and there’s only 30 people or so. We are pushing it, but we’re not getting enough acceptance of this idea of the simplified field study.

B&A: Who do you think does a good job dealing with content online?

Nielsen: Very few actually. I can’t come up with any great examples — it’s still so print-oriented. My own articles aren’t that great either, actually. I’m very verbose in my writing style. It needs to be very punchy and very short, and it’s very hard to write that way.

There’s more linking happening today with all of the weblogs, which is kind of nice, but I think the commentary is often not that great. The reason is that I think weblogs tend to emphasize this stream of consciousness posting style, which I don’t think is good—that’s not respectful of the readers’ time. What’s good about weblogs is that they’ve broadened the number of authors, but at the same time they’ve removed that feeling that the writing is really being edited.

B&A: If you weren’t doing usability, what do you think you’d be doing?

Nielsen: I would probably be a university professor of something or other. When I think back to when I was a kid, I had a lot of different interests and things I was good at, which I think was one of the reasons I ended up in usability. You have be good at communicating, you have to know about technology, you have to understand interaction and human behavior. There’s all these different angles that pull together very nicely in usability. It’s good for a person who’s broad in the types of things they’re good at.

I might have ended up as a historian, I might have been a mathematician, I don’t know. I think that being a professor is the most likely. The reason I got into usability is that it’s a discipline that gets interesting when you go into the actual practice of it. There’s actually not that much theory, and it’s not that exciting actually.

Chad Thornton works as a Usability Specialist in the User Experience Group at Intuit. He has done similar work at Achieva, the American Museum of Natural History, and Pomona College, where he received his degree in Biology.

Making Emotional Connections Through Participatory Design

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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.