Summit Beginnings: Saturday

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ASIST IA Summit Summary
Baltimore Maryland 15-17 March, 2002

The 2002 Summit in Baltimore has come and gone. Boxes and Arrows was in attendance covering the events, the social mixing and the controversies. Throughout the summit we made some new friends and took a lot of pictures. We hope that those who attended will share their stories as well.

Izumi Oku, Matt Jones and Brad Lauster demonstrate the international IA gang sign.
Izumi Oku, Matt Jones and Brad Lauster demonstrate the international IA gang sign.
(photo Christina Wodtke)

Friday, March 15
The summit kicked off with the traditional Friday evening cocktail hour. Tentative attendees came together, introduced themselves, had a drink or two and as easily as they flew into town, became fast friends.

The evening was marked by continuous exchanges of exclamations as badges were read and email correspondents from the SIGIA-L list met in person for the first time. Large groups of people peeled off together for dinner and more socializing. The summit had officially begun.

Saturday, March 16
Saturday’s events began much too early for many but most of us managed to be there on time. After a brief breakfast there was a short intro by Richard Hill, – who took a moment to introduce the inter-organizational (ASIST, CHI, AIGA and STC) group formed to address the cross organizational issues and needs of the IA community. Then Andrew Dillon took the stage and began with an overview of the summit’s history. He introduced and thanked the committee members for their work in planning the summit and described some of the challenges they faced as a committee. He gave a brief explanation about this year’s theme “Refining our Craft” and laid out the format–full group presentations, parallel sessions of case studies and poster presentations–which all support the learning and refinement of what we do. Andrew then introduced the keynote speaker Steve Krug.

The Keynote: Confessions of a SIGIA-L Lurker: A Pinhead’s View of Information Architecture
Steve Krug

Steve Krug, author of “Don’t Make Me Think: The Common Sense Guide to Usability,” was simultaneously serious, analytical and irreverent as a speaker. His corporate motto, "It’s not rocket surgery," illustrates this unique combination of qualities. In his presentation he attempted to squeeze the entire field of IA through the wringer; to note the difference between IA and usability and to dissect the top five things IAs talk about on the SIGIA list.

Steve Krug chats with Don Kraft following his keynote address.
Steve Krug chats with Don Kraft following his keynote address.
(photo Erin Malone)

A self-confessed lurker on the list, Steve stated “I am not an IA, I don’t even play one on TV.”

He talked about his professional background–moving through his career from typesetting to computing to tech writing to usability consulting.

There was an interesting comparison of the “Lou and Peter” (Rosenfeld and Morville) version of IA –"IAs organize information to make it more understandable" –to the Richard Saul Wurman version of IA–IA’s organize information to make it more accessible. He noted Boxes and Arrows and paraphrased some of his observations from the Nathan Shedroff article about claiming the name and the turf and the angst of many practitioners over names. He then shared that his insights have been gained through experience and observation.

Throughout his talk he made fun of himself, his background – as far as being an expert on IA-and his presentation, which only added to his funny and approachable style.

The top five things that he thought we spent time talking about on the SIGIA list were:

  1. Tools
    Lots of discussion about who uses what, what’s best or better than this or that
  2. Defining things
    He noted that we like to frequently define who and what we are a lot. He illustrated this point by showing the cover from the Richard Scarry book “What do people do all day” as well as Jesse James Garrett’s "Elements of Experience diagram" and Challis Hodge’s "Experience Design Roles" model. He noted that it looked like a putting green and he wasn’t sure what it meant in terms of the relationship of one role to another. But he liked it.
  3. Big IA versus Little IA
    Mr. Krug stated he always forgets the difference between the two, which got a big laugh.
  4. Research
    He felt that research had very little practical application to the practicing profession. He said, ” if you can prove it, then it’s probably obvious,” and then stressed that we need to make sense to people and apply principles and best practices to specific cases. He cited Jakob Nielsen’s closing talk at the Usability Professionals’ Association conference last year in support of this.
  5. ROI (Return on Investment)
    From what he observed while lurking on the list, we seem to have a tough time with ROI because most people who need IA can’t afford to even rent one. Our best bet is to educate and generate best practices. We need to stop grabbing for turf and give intelligent explanations of what we do.

Overall, Krug’s keynote was irreverent, self-effacing and designed to spark debate around several points. He turned the mirror on us, through his observations of the list and the topics we discuss, and offered friendly “outsider” advice on how we can improve ourselves and the profession.

Information Architecture and Usability: Responding to the Keynote
Lou Rosenfeld, moderator, Keith Instone, Christina Wodtke, Andrew Dillon and Steve Krug

Following the keynote, the panel responded to the keynote and questions posed
by Lou and the audience.

Christina Wodtke, Andrew Dillon, Keith Instone and Steve Krug respond to the keynote.
Christina Wodtke, Andrew Dillon, Keith Instone and Steve Krug respond to the keynote.
(photo Erin Malone)

Starting the session, Lou mentioned that even though he was not present, Jakob Nielsen always seemed to dominate the conversation. Christina Wodtke made a brave statement and said she felt IA needed to be given away and taught to other people. She felt there would still be master craftspeople, but for the discipline to progress we had to be more open about giving away our knowledge. She supported this by giving an example from her company (CarbonIQ) conducting training workshops and getting more business as a result. Clients learn about information architecture and then decide they don’t have time to do it themselves and hire an IA, because once they are educated they understand the value.

Q. An audience member asked if there was an IA list of heuristics, akin to Nielsen’s list of heuristics.
A. Steve Krug – A body of best practices is better than a list. Christina admonished usability folks for not doing a better job of informing design. Usability fails because test reports wag the finger at us and do little to inform the design process.

Q. Why are we so preoccupied with usability?
A. Andrew Dillon – It is unhealthy when usability and IA are divided. All work of the IA should be concerned with the user, therefore usability is important.

Q. Are we shying away from design and should we take more ownership of it?
A. Andrew Dillon – Yes, we should step up to the plate and do it. Keith Instone – We should collaborate more. CW -We are designers. IAs architect. Architecture = Design. We have to engage in creative activities and need to be taken to task for what we create.

Christina Wodtke, Andrew Dillon, Keith Instone and Steve Krug answer questions
Christina Wodtke, Andrew Dillon, Keith Instone and Steve Krug answer questions
(photo Erin Malone)

Q. What is the importance of ROI?
A. SK – people need to educate people who spend money that usability and IA are worth spending money on. Case studies trying to prove ROI are not a good use of time. He recommended doing usability tests on the product and having the business / marketing people come and watch real people use their product. Then pitch for what you can do to make the product better. Christina Wodtke shocked us all by saying that ROI is a big lie. But we have to talk to the CEO about how their business will be improved – in dollars and sense.

Q. What is the language that communicates the value of what we do?
A. CW – Instead of inventing our own language, adopt the language of others. Talk business with the business people. Understand marketing terms and needs. KI – Learn the language of business to make the case. They are receptive to our messages. Audience comment – There is value that comes from being multidisciplinary and being able to educate other people in an organization.

Q. John Zapolski, from the audience, asked the panel to comment: We haven’t talked about the relationship between IA and design. There are many problems
similar to those in IA that have been solved in the design space.
A. CW – When the web came around we created new processes but we forgot that we can borrow from other disciplines. We have been scared of design by the “magic.” We need to find the balance between the white coats of science (research) and design.

Q. What is the role of IA and research?
A. KI- There is frustration with being able to apply research. AD- Lots and lots of research had to be done before we got there – before “it’s obvious” came out of the evidence. It’s not just a series of outputs. The role of research is not to prove anything, it’s to check things and disprove things. SK- Research may not be able to prove things, but people looking for research are looking to prove something and that is what’s bad. Case Studies : Parallel Sessions

E-Greetings Case Study
Chris Farnum
http://home.earthlink.net/~crfarnum/cfarnum.ppt

Chris Farnum talk about user testing the taxonomy for eGreetings.
Chris Farnum talk about user testing the taxonomy for eGreetings.
(photo Erin Malone)

Chris Farnum, a former Argonaut (member of Argus Associates), presented the work he did while at Argus to redesign the card collection organization, taxonomy and search at the eGreetings.com. He presented their methodology and processes and went into detail specifically about the card sorting, prototype testing and other methods they used to learn from users.

Farnum detailed the process used to define the controlled vocabulary direction and then showed how that evolved to paper prototypes used to determine the final taxonomy direction and facet level. He showed samples from the toolkit used in their testing and talked about the findings, which surprised them because of the preconceived assumptions and how they shaped the design.

The second part of the presentation showed their work done on search once the browse structure and taxonomy were defined. To Farnum’s credit, he talked about how he and the client disagreed, therefore ending up in two competing prototypes to take through testing. In the end, the client design was preferred by users and Farnum was forthcoming about letting the audience know that although it was difficult, he listened to the users when making the final recommendation.

Farnum ended his presentation with the bittersweet information that the search part of the project never launched because the company was sold, but that if you look at the site today, many elements of the classification scheme and homepage organization that they designed are still being used.

Information Architecture for the Enterprise
Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Merholz

Peter had some brief thoughts on IA for the Enterprise.
http://www.peterme.com/assets/enterprise_ia_peterme.ppt

Some of this included an observation of the evolution in customer-centric practices despite decentralized customer relationships. There was a lack of coherence with interaction with customers. It didn’t help that departments didn’t talk to each other. Then the buzz of customer relationship management systems was seen to solve that decentralized customer relationship. In actuality, they bridged the operational side of managing relationship and did not allow for a holistic approach to customer interaction.

All enterprises did with CRM was “put a single face on decentralized organization.”

The old way was to shove the message and brand perception to customers.
The new way is to have interactions with other people and with many business units.

Striking a balance between the new and the old allows for consistency and for innovation. Peter presented the five steps toward meaningful consistency.

  1. Centralize web/IA efforts – treat them like an internal consultancy.
  2. Build organizational awareness even with external justifications and quick wins.
  3. Study Customers – understand their approaches, share IA on needs not company structure.
  4. Develop a style guide beyond the visual. It should include content display, navigation systems, interaction elements, rules and should be extensible.
  5. Implement a CMS (Content Management System) – a document system is not sufficient, make it easier to do the right thing than to do your own thing.

Lou Rosenfeld talked about the hyper-evolutionary model: Enterprise Information Architecture.
http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000078.html

Over the past couple years IAs have been focused on users and content for websites, but have not been applying what was learned to the entire company. It seems as though this context for IAs is being ignored Lou’s presentation focused on the history of IA practices for the web and internet. He discussed how an IA’s skills transition to benefit enterprise: ecommerce, reduced costs, clearer communications, shared expertise and reduced reorganizations.

He later dissected some of the “sins” of that prevent enterprise IA from working:

Business Units Five Deadly Sins

  1. Greed
  2. Ignorance
  3. Slothfulness
  4. Fear
  5. Loathing

IA Five Deadly Sins

  1. Overreaching
  2. Haste
  3. Overextending
  4. Presumptuousness
  5. Naivete

He did offer some suggestions for how enterprise IA can succeed (aka: Lou’s Pipe Dream):

  1. Structure
  2. Offerings
  3. Economic Model
  4. Marketing
  5. Staffing
  6. Timing

MetaData and Taxonomies For a More Flexible Information Architecture
Amy J. Warner

You go to the doctor when you feel ill. You go to Dr. Warner when you feel information overload. Amy J. Warner PhD Gave an insightful and clarifying talk.  Many “don’t give me any of that librarian stuff” IA’s were held fixed to the edge of their seats by her explanation of the continuum of controlled vocabularies and taxonomies, from synonym rings to full blow thesauri.
 
First she walked us through the building blocks of “taxonomies” (a word she and other LIS educated folks are slowly and cautiously beginning to adopt in order to clearly communicate with businesses). All classification efforts start with metadata. Metadata falls into five categories: administrative, descriptive, prescriptive, technical and use. It is descriptive metadata that we most often use in controlled vocabulary creation efforts. So once the descriptive metadata is harvested through indexing efforts, the classification can begin.
 
To begin the process, she presented the levels of potential complexity in controlled vocabularies, from the simple equivalence-based synonym rings, through the hierarchal classification schemas/taxonomies into the rich and full blown thesauri (the Cadillac of controlled vocabularies) that include associative relationships as well as equivalence and hierarchal. Which to go with? Depends how much time for creation and maintenance you need, and what you are trying to do with your controlled vocabulary. After all why get a Caddy when a Hyundai might do?
 
Next, she dove right into the importance of business context for creating controlled vocabularies. We saw this throughout the conference: people are figuring out how to talk IA to business. Dr. Warner made complex ideas clear and more importantly relevant to solving the problems we all face today in our information situated lives. Next time you get a chance to visit this doctor, be sure to go!

George Olsen and Liz Danzico lunch
George Olsen and Liz Danzico lunch
(photo Christina Wodtke)

After the first set of case studies, we all gathered for a lunch of rubbery hotel chicken and more socializing. Another set of parallel case study sessions followed lunch.

Case Studies : Parallel Sessions

BBCi Search – Why Search Isn’t Just a Technology Problem
Matt Jones, BBCi Search http://www.blackbeltjones.com/presentations/asist2002/asist.ppt

Matt’s presentation focused on the research and development of a taxonomy process and supporting tool at the BBC. In addition he gave some insights on evaluating the effectiveness of search user interfaces/interaction designs on websites. Through user research and testing, Matt was able to put together an internal team and supporting software to tag some of the BBC’s web materials and provide strategic content programming for search results.

Some future thoughts on search for the BBCi:

  • Development of an answer engine.
  • Distribute the building of the taxonomy to the editorial staff.
  • Develop facets.
  • Provide a suite of search interfaces that other business units can repurpose.
  • Context andconversation: profiling the users, building a community.
  • Drive search experience with facets.

Some of the features that Matt described in his presentation will not be available until around April 20.

References to other materials associated with Matt’s presentation: http://www128.pair.com/louis/home/bloug_archive/000039.html
http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000040.html
http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000075.html
Reflections on H2G2 – Collaborative effort of peer-reviewed knowledge base(brainchild of Douglas Adams)

Peoplesoft.com
Chiara Fox, Peoplesoft and Peter Merholz, Adaptive Path
http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/peoplesoft_case_study.FINAL.ppt

Chiara Fox of Peoplesoft and Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path presented their work from the design of the Peoplesoft site. They detailed the team, the methodologies and techniques used to learn about the content and their users. They then discussed the specific processes for content analysis and mapping and showed various artifacts from their work.

Audi Razorfish
James Kalbach, Razorfish, Germany

Jim Kalbach from Razorfish Germany presented three major highlights from their year long work on the design of the Audi Germany website.

The Tool

Jim Kahlbach presents the Audi germany site case study.
Jim Kahlbach presents the Audi germany site case study.
(photo Erin Malone)

The group used Adobe GoLive as both their site mapping tool and wireframing tool, allowing for instant HTML prototypes and collaborative working and updating. The goal was to find a better tool for version controlling, efficient updates and changes to the site as it progressed. While it met most of their expectations, ultimately it was the wrong tool for the job because not everyone on the team adopted it and the project pushed the limits of what the product was capable of.

Jumping Boxes
Jim showed how the team solved the problem of variable browser sizes by implementing a solution they called "Jumping Boxes’. Following Audi’s motto of “Better design through technology,” Razorfish used technology to adjust the page layout based on the screen size. It detects the browser size and serves the page design that best fits the size of the browser. He demonstrated how the page moves modules of content down and over, while at the same time several modules of content are anchored in place. The design rendered first, depended on browser size. The exact technology was not detailed but Jim speculated that it involved client-side Javascript and CSS. All this work was done to support a strict grid design – three different designs were implemented- and to maintain the right navigation scheme. It was an interesting problem and solution, although Jim commented that it was an overly complex solution to a simple problem.

Right-hand Navigation versus Left-hand Navigation
The bulk of Jim’s presentation covered this component of the project and he detailed the extensive user testing the team did to find out if their solution would be usable, learnable and accepted by users and the client. The Razorfish team was challenged to create a site that was competitively different and the right-hand navigation was a key element in their solution. Their studies- with 64 people in usability tests, eye movement analysis and interviews – surprised them in that their hypotheses were very conservative and the results more than showed that the site was learnable and quite usable with a right-hand navigation scheme. They plan to publish their research, so I won’t spoil it by attempting to quote the presentation. The final results of the tests satisfied the team and the client and the site was launched with a right-hand navigation system. Panel: The Art of Deliverables
Noel Franus, moderator, Jesse James Garrett, Dan Brown, Erin Malone, John Zapolski
The panel opened with brief intros and bios of the panelists by moderator Noel Franus. Overall the panel was a great show and tell of different philosophies surrounding deliverables that IAs produce. The panel represented both internal and consulting IAs.

The Art of Deliverables panelists
The Art of Deliverables panelists, from l. Noel Franus, Jesse James Garrett, Dan Brown, Erin Malone, John Zapolski
(photo Joe Sokohl)

Jesse James Garrett walked through his “visual vocabulary” for diagramming information structures and interaction flows. Garrett said he intentionally designed his system to work with the lowest common denominator – PowerPoint – in an effort to make the diagrams as widely accessible as possible (although the visual vocabulary templates are available for a variety of software programs.. Jesse went into some high level discourse about visual vocabulary and how it could be used. One example that he shared was the reverse IA engineering of Yahoo! Mail which is currently available at on Boxes and Arrows. In contrast to the other panelists, who often presented poster-sized diagrams, Garrett argued that diagrams should be made to fit (or tiled) onto letter-sized paper so that they can easily be printed by a wide variety of people

Dan Brown stressed deliverables should have three essential components. Coherence – done by making sure you’re working with as complete a set of information as possible, identifying the dimensions of the information to be presented and the overall message the diagram should convey. Context – created by including references to previous work that forms the basis for a particular deliverable. Relevance – done by making the deliverables self-referential.
http://www.greenonions.com/dan/portfolio/

Erin Malone discussed some of the process and organization behavior (acceptance) that revolves around the production of deliverables as a collaborative (share the map & use it) tool for business owners and engineering. The deliverables are used as a communication tool and not the end product of her group’s work. She included techniques for annotation, the need to iterate, and parallel work on developing the functional specifications.
http://www.emdezine.com/designwritings/files/UsingFlowmaps.ppt

John Zapolski explored the Zen-like aspects of producing deliverables. Design is not just an activity of making things, but also of making sense. He provided his own definition of IA: an area of design concerned with classifying, organizing, and structuring information so that it becomes meaningful. He believes that we need time to think so that we can make things well. He described a good model of being able to analyze a concrete situation and understand it at an abstract level but then being able to apply the abstract again to something concrete. He drew a distinction between deliverables intended for “problem seeking” and “problem solving” parts of a project. Problem seeking deliverables include such things as explanations of user goals, concept maps, content audits and inventories and systems analysis. Problem solving deliverables include such things as conceptual models (of the proposed solution), flow maps and user interface specifications.
http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/john_zapolski_IAsummit02.pdf

One of Mike Lee's three dimensional IA artifacts
One of Mike Lee’s three dimensional IA artifacts
(photo Matt Jones)

Dinner and Posters
Following the deliverables panel, the attendees were invited to grab a buffet dinner, socialize and meet the poster presenters. During the day the foyer of the hotel conference area was transformed as people put up their presentations and posters. The dinner hour allowed people to interact with the authors and ask questions about the project.

One of the most interesting posters was that of Mike Lee. Lee spent time analyzing the site map deliverables IAs make and wondered if their meaning/understanding would be enhanced by taking them into the 3d realm. He had 3d models of various site maps and charts converted into these three-dimensional explorations. He also demonstrated how to take one of these. Lee specifically noted on his poster that he didn’t know, yet, how this concept in presentation would apply in practice, but it was nice to see innovative thinking in how we visualize our solutions.

The Posters
Where the Wireframes Are: The Use and Abuse of Page Layouts in Information Architecture Practices Dan Brown
http://www.greenonions.com/dan/portfolio/wireframes_poster.pdf

Modeling Access Control Vicky Buser and Michael Sullivan

A Living Archeology: Excavating The Past – Mapping The Future Serena Fenton

Information Flow Diagram Dennis Huston
http://www.seaempty.com/SEImages/informationtheory.html

Location, Path & Attribute Breadcrumbs Keith Instone
http://keith.instone.org/breadcrumbs/

Dimensional Deliverables: Exploring the Realm Between Paper and Screen Mike Lee
http://www.visuallee.com/ia

Kimberly Peters poster
Kimberly Peters explains her poster
(photo Joe Sokohl)

Discrepancies Between Business Requirements, Use Cases, Design Documents, and Actual Development Richard M. Oppedisano

Sample Personae, Process Flow Document, and Wireframes for an Interactive Television Project Kimberly Peters

Claude Steinberg discusses his poster
Claude Steinberg discusses his poster
(photo Joe Sokohl)

Auditory Context Diagrams, Representations for Organizing Information Presented Vocally Claude Steinberg

Information Architecture’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’ and the IT Project Iceberg Lee Sachs

Vision Based Requirements Unifying User-Centric Interaction Design With Requirements Analysis Methodologies Laura Scheirer

DCIAs gathering
DCIAs gathering
(photo Joe Sokohl)

Following dinner and posters, the local DCIA local group invited everyone to attend their monthly event, which they scheduled in the bar of the hotel. From the looks of the bar, a large portion of us took them up on their offer and conversations about IA took place late into the night.

Chicken Run: Summit Closing: Sunday

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ASIST IA Summit Summary
Sunday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day)

One of several chickens seen in the crowd.
One of several chickens seen in the crowd.
(photo Erin Malone)

Sunday morning found 240 tired IAs eagerly grabbing breakfast and pondering the chickens that had been set up in a little farm scene in the conference area of the hotel. All I can say is that a lot of pictures were taken of the chickens (and a few of them even "mysteriously" flew the coop).

Panel

Business Context of the Information Architecture in Content Management Systems
Lisa Chan, moderator, Amy Warner, Samantha Bailey, Paula Thornton, Bob Boiko

The panel began with brief intros and bios of the panelists by moderator Lisa Chan.

Bob Boiko opened the panel discussion by talking about what IA and CMS have to do with each other. CM systems generate sites and the architecture for a CMS is at the enterprise level involving development of templates and structures that will then render individual sites and structures. If you can generalize and think at the abstract level, if you can map and think larger, then you can practice IA at the enterprise level.

Paula Thornton followed and talked about the challenges of working with CM systems due to their immaturity in the marketplace. She illustrated the challenges of vendor selection and shared some strategies and vision for how to work around the vendor offerings.
http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/thornton_cm.ppt

Samantha Bailey
Samantha Bailey
(photo Erin Malone)

Samantha Bailey presented her views on how a CM system can give more functionality and ease to the IA. She spoke of the challenges of selecting a CM system and the need to prioritize where your efforts go. She warned against letting a CMS solution that makes things easier for the end customer make things more difficult for the internal team that must use the CM system. She closed by stressing the need for synergies and collaboration across all members of the team that will select, implement and use the CMS solution.
http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/bailey.cm.ppt

Amy J. Warner closed the panel by discussing the importance of maximizing the investment in taxonomy and metadata and how leveraging those elements throughout the system will lead to a higher return on investment in the long run. She made the point that the more time spent at the input stage, appropriately tagging and applying content to the taxonomy, the better the retrieval experience at the output point. The audience then proceeded to ask general questions as well as asking about examples of taxonomies to look at for reference. Peter Merholz (the Bad Peter) polled the audience to see who uses a CMS (20-30) and who was happy with their CMS (4), which led to the panelists talking about the fact that CMS solutions generally are never adequate off the shelf, and must have a lot of customization done to fit the organizational needs.

Case Studies : Parallel Sessions

Jesse James Garrett talks about the IA of everyday things
IA diagram for the radio program All Things Considered
Jesse James Garrett talks about the IA of everyday things, including the architecture of the popular radio program, "All things Considered"
(photos Erin Malone)

The Information Architecture of Everyday Things
Jesse James Garrett
Jesse James Garrett gave a very interesting presentation in which he dissected elements from the world around us. The premise: IA is all around us. IA is as old as communication and wherever there is information there is architecture. He was making a point, that an IA can reverse engineer just about anything and he used concepts from basic design principles to illustrate this point. He showed a series of slides that illustrated the types of communication and inference a viewer can have when two pieces of information are put together.

These slides reminded me of the basic design exercises I had to do when I was in design school: composition, juxtaposition, scale etc. Jesse went on to say that humans are patternmakers and naturally desire to organize information. IA is the juxtaposition of individual pieces of information in order to convey meaning. He then illustrated these points with a series of reverse engineered examples: juxtaposition, implicit architecture, explicit architecture, random access, linear access, non-linear access. The examples were drawn from everyday life -a restaurant menu,the index in Harpers weekly, the program notes from NPR’s "All things Considered" and the Land’s End catalog.

Jesse ended by challenging the audience to take these ideas and translate them to the web, but to beware of the pitfalls around constraints imposed by the medium. He noted that conventions are not necessarily best practices and that user behavior must always be kept in mind.

Overall, the presentation was a goodintroduction to information architecture, but there was some concern among the audience – those who came from the design world – that these concepts only add to the fear that IAs must know everything instead of supporting the collaborative relationship with a designer to make an experience. Jesse was also asked by an audience member to spend some more time making examples from more vernacular samples, rather than examples of things that were professionally designed (e.g. The Land’s End catalog, the Harper’s weekly index). Several audience members recommended good books to check out and Jesse promised to add them to his reading list attached to this presentation.

Choosing the Best Path: Techniques for Assessing and Improving Information Scent
Jason Withrow

Jason Withrow presented the concept/metaphor of information scent. The concept of information scent originated at Xerox Parc and is related to the concept of information foraging, which basically classifies people as infovores that are following the scent of information. Jason discussed how users will continue clicking or working their way through a site if they can still follow the scent of the information or if the scent gets stronger. The user relies on a semantic network of nodes of concepts and connection of terms. This places a strong reliance on a commonly understood vocabulary and synonyms to execute the integral labelling system that provides the scent. Jason points out that information scent tends to work best with focussed information. One example that has proven to help keep information scent existent on pages is the use of “also see” links.

Facet Analysis
Louise Gruenberg
Louise has had a diverse set of experiences from instructional design to library and information science. In this discussion, she gave an overview of faceted classification development. Her talk was very informal and even provided an opportunity for exercises to explain how facets can be derived from a collection of things. These examples included a collection of fruit, science materials for a particular age of girls, and the process of selecting clothing from an online ecommerce site.

Gruenberg explained the history of faceted classification – a technique from library and information science in which items can be categorized in more than one way. For example, a piece of fruit might be categorized by taste with “facets” for sweet, sour, etc. and also categorized by color, with “facets” of particular colors.

Typically facets are:

  • are mutually exclusive, representing a characteristic not found in the other facets,
  • can’t be further sub-divided – although this decision is made by the person
    doing the categorization and is based on how important further sub-division is,
  • and have non-hierarchical relationships with other facets

But while traditionally librarians have focused on creating mutually exclusive facets, Gruenberg argued that’s no longer a critical factor, since database-driven sites make it easy to display information in more than one place – in contrast to the physical world where only one copy of a document might exist.

Facets can be used to help information architects analyze the site’s content and functionality by various topics or functions, or even by metaphors. For new sites, this is done via a top-down approach, while a bottom-up approach works better for overhauling existing sites, Gruenberg said.

Lou Rosenfeld and Erica Bruce lunch
Lou Rosenfeld and Erica Bruce lunch
(photo Joe Sokohl)

Following the parallel sessions, another fun chicken lunch was served so slowly that many attendees were barely served before the hour was over. Despite the food, the level of conversation was more animated than the day before and it was obvious that old and new friends were enjoying the dissection of our craft and had a lot of things to say. Case Studies : Parallel Sessions

New Roles in Information Architecture
Peter Morville, Semantic Studios
http://semanticstudios.com/events/ia2002/

Peter began the presentation by reviewing the distinction of the “good Peter” and the “bad Peter.” Peter Morville claimed to be “good Peter” and Peter Merholz the “bad Peter.” There is a long history of both of these Peters having different opinions on the definition of an information architect.

But the central thought of his talk was the next generation of information architects and the titles and roles they will have in the coming years. There is a glut of information and IAs should begin taking an entrepreneurial role in applying what they have been doing for the web across the enterprise.

Education and Information Architecture
Andrew Dillon, Rong Tang, Karl Fast, David Robins, Louise Gruenberg

Moderated by Andrew Dillon, the Education panel presented a diverse set of quick presentations around the current and future information architecture curriculum. David Robins presented the cross disciplinary program that has been developed at Kent State University. Rong Tong presented a survey of IA courses and certificates offered across the 54 ALA accredited LIS (Library and InformationSciences) schools in the country. She did not offer any assessment of IA courses offered through design schools. She also surveyed the course objectives and statements to gain an understanding of the type of content to be covered by these courses.

Karl Fast talks about his experience at LIS school.
Karl Fast talks about his experience at LIS school.
(photo Erin Malone)

Karl Fast shared his current experience with the LIS program in which he’s enrolled and warned about the perspective from which the courses are being taught. The LIS program has not pulled itself out of the old world of Libraries and physical books and card catalogs. The curriculum needs to be taught with a richer perspective as to how and where the skills can be applied.

Louise Gruenberg offered the audience a series of questions and asked for small groups to discuss them. The groups were asked to share their answer to one of the questions with everyone. It was interesting to see that each group ended up taking a different question and everyone felt that schools need to be multidisciplinary in their teaching approach and that practitioners need to be part of the faculty.

The floor was then opened up for questions.

Steve Mulder
Nam-Ho Park
Louise Gruenberg
Steve Mulder, Nam-Ho Park and Louise Gruenberg are a few who took advantage of Five Minute Madness and spoke their mind.
(photos Erin Malone)

Five Minute Madness
Gary Marchianini, moderator
Five minute madness is the opportunity for all summit attendees, excluding presenters, to have five minutes to speak. The speaker could give a presentation-and in this case we saw two, Rashmi Sinha presented a brief overview of the faceted classification system designed for Flamenco, and Matt Jones (who broke the "no presenter" rule) gave a brief presentation. Or they could just take the microphone and speak their mind, offer insights or ask questions of the audience.

There were 17 people brave enough to get up and speak and the topics covered everything from Brad Lauster thanking the people he had met to Jeff Lash putting an invitation out on the table for IAs involved in intranets to join the Yahoo group of intranet IAs, to Tony Bull, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill feeling wishful that he could take the title IA, but he didn’t see it yet because of the uneven acceptance of IA as a title to David Austen reminding everyone that the SIGIA-L list has a website to Thomas Pole, an engineer, challenging us (IAs) to not let engineers get away with it when they say they can’t make something to Don Kraft thanking us for letting him learn about information architecture. It was a diverse set of people who spoke on a wide range of offerings. It was also one of the neatest things about this conference.

Wrap Up
Andrew Dillon
Andrew Dillon closed the summit with some thoughts about where we started on Saturday morning. He felt we have a community, which was exhibited by all who attended and included an international presence. We are beyond definition. There is evidence of progress, shown by the case studies which were not all rosy and perfect, shown by the discussions around IA in education and IA in business relationships and by the types of topics discussed over the weekend – Metadata to metaphors, ROI and ethic, usability and facet analysis.

He concluded by saying that there would be an IA summit in 2003 and that Christina Wodtke would lead the planning efforts. Dillon also reminded us of other community initiatives-Boxes and Arrows, SIGIA-L, the info-arch.org group, the special ASIS Journal coming out in August that will be devoted solely to IA and all the books and new editions being worked on by many of the attendees. The committee for 2002 was thanked again and the 2002 IA Summit drew to a close.

For more information:

Most of of the observations in this piece were written by Erin Malone. Since chickens can’t write and one person can’t attend three parallel sessions, other portions were written by Lisa Chan, George Olsen, Thomas Vander Wal and Christina Wodtke.

What’s in a Name? Or, What Exactly Do We Call Ourselves?

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Get us together for a cocktail hour, a conference or on a mailing list and the question inevitably arises: So what exactly do we call ourselves? And for every dozen people, there are probably two dozen opinions.

Boxes and Arrows was no different. Defining our audience involved some discussion, and like the community-at-large, deciding what to call this audience sparked the most heated discussions. Continue reading What’s in a Name? Or, What Exactly Do We Call Ourselves?

Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001

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If John Donne’s famous quotation was to be updated for the 21st century, it might read, “No man is an island entire of itself, except for intranet developers.” Unlike their counterparts on the public web, those working on Intranets do not have as many opportunities to share information, research competitor’s sites, or learn from the successes of other intranets.

What makes an intranet the “best”? Is it the most usable, the most improved, the one with the best ROI?The Nielsen Normal Group report “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001” seeks to change that. It is a refreshing look inside ten successful intranets of organizations ranging from multinational conglomerates (Cisco) to small new media firms (silverorange) to educational institutions (Luleå University of Technology).

For those expecting to glean the secret to Intranet design from somewhere within the 111-page report, well, prepare to be disappointed. There are no flashes of brilliance, no never-heard-before ideas, no changing-the-way-intranets-are-designed stories. What the report has, however, are ten excellent case studies, each detailing the evolution of the award-winning design.

Sure, conference presentations and articles in publications talk about intranets and give examples, but they usually approach the subject from a very high level and gloss over the parts that could actually be beneficial to others. On the other hand, the case studies here go into substantially more detail.

Screenshots of the original design (where applicable) are shown, and the project background is presented along with goals and constraints. The redesign process is then explained, with examples of usability methods, timelines, and insight from those involved in the project. Specific issues that came up (i.e. multi-lingual issues, content management, personalization) are addressed, and the results are revealed, along with a few “lessons learned” (which are, for the most part, unique for each company).

For those who do not have time to read the case studies, the three-page executive summary does an excellent job summarizing the major points of the reports, describing the best practices and culling the most important and obvious lessons learned. There is also a two-page overview of the winners that hits the major points of each company’s case study. (While web designers and developers would benefit from reading the entire report, these five pages could be extracted and presented as a beneficial quick read to those in management and non-web job roles.)

While the information is extremely beneficial, the report is not perfect; with only a few pages devoted to each intranet, there is a substantial amount of information that would be valuable to intranet designers that is not included. For example, though most companies developed iterative designs, in most cases only the before and after designs are showed. The reports’ authors often delve into nit-picky comments on visual design, space that could have been better allocated to additional information on the design process, user testing, or real-world results.

Most notably, there is a ratings scale that is sure to raise eyebrows. What makes an intranet the “best”? Is it the most usable, the most improved, the one with the best ROI? The designs were (admittedly) not tested for usability; no ROI calculations are included or discussed; the ratings are subjective values determined by the three authors, and nothing else.

Still, while the scoring system is a bit questionable (though the authors do note that future reports will incorporate user testing as part of the rating process), there is no doubt that the ten intranets presented are excellent applications from which most reading the report will be able to learn. While, by default, “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001” would have been the best (read: only) publication on intranet user experience, the authors have not rested on that dubious distinction. The Neilsen Norman Group authors have put together a first-rate report which can be an engaging read for anyone involved inthe management, design or development of an Intranet. Designers can learn about the specific details of projects, usability testing tactics, and design issues, while managers can obtain a more high-level view of Intranet strategies. Overall, a worthwhilepublication that looks to only be improved upon in future years.

About the report:

  • “Intranet Design Annual: The Ten Best Intranets of 2001”
  • Kara Pernice Coyne, Jakob Nielsen, and Candice Goodwin
  • Nielsen Norman Group, November 2001
  • (no ISBN)
  • Downloadable PDF
  • 111 pages
  • $54/$154 (report/report, site and intranet license)
  • Available for immediate download at http://nngroup.com/reports/intranet/2001/
  • Target audience: “Anybody in charge of an intranet or its design”
  • Executive summary: Selection Criteria and Process; Overview of the 10 Winners; Common Themes Across the Winners; Summary of the Winners; 10 Individual Case Studies; Future Intranet Design Recommendations, Related to Design Process
Jeff Lash is working on improving the intranet user experience at Premcor. He was previously an Information Architect at Xplane and is the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture.

Bringing Your Personas to Life in Real Life

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You read about personas in “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.” You know that using them improves your interactive designs and helps get your coworkers on the same boat. You did your ethnographic research, created a useful persona set and are ready to start designing for the needs of your personas. But first you have to document and share your personas with your colleagues.

When presenting, talking about your personas, or referring to them in writing, communicate as though they are real people, people that you know. Express it like you are talking about a friend.

The way you communicate the personas and present your deliverables is key to ensuring consistency of vision. Without that consistency, you’ll spend far too much time arguing with your colleagues about who your users are rather than how to meet their needs. Let’s start with a review of what we know about personas, and why they are useful. Continue reading Bringing Your Personas to Life in Real Life

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
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© 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.