Zen and the Art of IA

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New Web 2.0 interaction design can offer a lot of new suggestions for easier interactions, good use of white space and other glaring design solutions to the typically very busy space of information architecture. But, if you practice IA well, including some new Web 2.0 techniques, you can begin to create mental space as well as white space. Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design, a new New Riders book by Robert Hoekman, Jr., is a great place to find out how much mental space can be offered by your systems.

We, the people, as users of these architectures, experience the downside of not having enough peace in the process of interacting with a poorly designed system. With almost a billion computers on earth and millions of unsatisfying interactions every minute, we are looking at massive amount of unintuitive interactions.

Where Are My Glasses?

Compare it with looking through a bag for a pair of glasses, while this might be one of the more frustrating moments of your entire day, it still has a logical conclusion, “glasses” or “no glasses.” The new reasoning here, when interacting with computers is that you have many other possible answers, finding the top half of the glasses, someone else’s glasses, things that think they are glasses, or having the bag just disappear on you.

If you lose your glasses, there aren’t many conclusions for outcome of this “scenario” in the real world. The glasses are either there or not. Within the computer the list is potentially unlimited, and most of the conclusions are mentally exhausting. Computers are tiring, constantly offering you options you don’t want and providing you with answers that don’t make any sense. More to the point, computers are designed to be complicated, much more complicated than a bag and glasses, hence, they aren’t designed to be obvious.

Web 2.0 UI for Dummies

In the current computer experience, there is a certain lack of “the design providing the answers,” something which is repeatedly addressed in Designing the Obvious, by Robert Hoekman, Jr. His bold use of language addresses not only the frustrations users experience in having an unrelaxed state of interaction, but also rightfully condemns the people behind these unhealthy and unintuitive user experiences. The book covers how to design a system that will tell the user if it has or doesn’t have “glasses” in it, and also how to prevent the computer from telling the user all sorts of other irrelevant information.

This book is very honest, amusing, straightforward, and extremely relevant. Besides providing strong a framework for designing more “obvious” applications, it also serves as a “Web 2.0 UI for Dummies” guidebook. Hoekman provides great Web 2.0 working examples, details what works about these new applications, discusses how they are successful, and explores what the people behind them have to say about their designs.

Diagnosis: Be More Mental

Reading this book was a pleasure. The amount of critical thinking and the solid diagnosis of the field of software design has to be admired. In fact, writing a book like this takes what I call, “balls.” Few designers out there can honestly say that they haven’t had some of these thoughts or wanted to say the things that are in this book. While Hoekman may be occasionally overstating the need to convince clients and sell services, in my opinion, he makes some brilliant conclusions and eye opening metaphors, such as the notion of links behaving like doors to other rooms, and the idea that “bad design” is actually ‘rude design.’ His eye for successful interactions and his approach in communicating what’s essential really sets the tone for this sort of detail-level design in the world of Web 2.0 applications.

One of his main thoughts in the book is the criticism of Implementation Models and his support for Mental Models when designing a product. While not in the book, a prime example is the Wacom input tablet, a direct representation of the typical interaction humans have had with information for thousands of years. Wacom is a translation of Japanese, Wa for Harmony, and Com for Computer. There is a strong movement towards more harmony with Web 2.0, and Designing the Obvious is a very good reference for anyone hoping to create more harmony in their designs.

Zen and the “Practice”

Zen is the art of practicing meditation in everything you do and existing solely in a mental space. Envisioning surroundings as full of peace creates an image of actions as poetry. If information architecture is poetry, it gives just meaning, placement, and timing to an overall message or theme. The flow of numbers, letters, images and sounds together form a medium for the mind, a zen space of constant understanding.

Another key concept in this book is the notion of designing for a minimal set of options or fluid interaction, another zen concept. While I don’t think that this is the future for all software development, he is likely right in leading most applications down this path, away from desensitizing the visitors with featuritis. He gives many methods for dropping the unnecessary, saying that “less is more, so aim low.” This notion of the minimal is hugely important within the teachings of zen, turning into the idea that you channel the energy, or features, that are interesting to you as a user.

Eating, Not Thinking About It

Hoekman also reiterates the important idea of using your own software regularly (referred to as eating your own dog food). I prefer to think of it as turning your own arrows into flowers. A long standing metaphor in the Buddhist philosophies that you can take any arrow aimed at you and turn it into a flower; I think that if you are shooting arrows out at someone else you can also turn them into flowers. As you use the software, Hoekman says to drop anything that stands out as being too difficult, unnecessary, or in the way. Let those petals fall where they may.

The book concentrates on the activity and not the concept. Just like this article’s namesake novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the activity of fixing and riding bikes is the real heart of the book, not the concept of looking inward, or any of the other meditation concepts. Interestingly, we remember the story of activity from Designing the Obvious, not all the concepts that were tied into it along the way. I can only surmise that Hoekman recommends a focus on activity because that is the most conscious of the interactive processes. While there is a huge movement in the design world regarding concept driven designs, I recommend this book to any design-oriented person as an eye opener to activity-based design.

Effective De5Sign

Hoekman provides some very interesting insights to the Japanese world of industrial design, including the activities of Kaizen and the 5S approach which are very successful in terms of creating appreciated designs in Japan. Kaizen is “change for the better” or “improvement,” and is most easily done in iterations. Kaizen was originally used as a management technique and is credited as the reason Toyota consistently builds high quality and long lasting vehicles.

The 5S approach was originally developed for the manufacturing industry, and represents these five words, and their translations: seiri (sort), seiton (straighten), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize) and shitsuke (sustain). In brief, 5S aims at reduction and refinement, both essential elements in creating long lasting and sustainable designs.

Implied, Not Stated

One thing I wish he mentioned more would be the notions of talent and skill. While he comes from a development background, Hoekman obviously has a great deal of inherent ability to explain what works and what doesn’t work surrounding these Web 2.0 applications. What amazes me, and not just with this book, is the lack of explaining design talent and or skill, other than just making case studies or glorifying the design’s end result.

A perfect example is how Hoekman gives a lot of kudos to a bunch of 2.0 teams, particularly 37signals, and quotes them explaining their process in the book. While in many cases this does lead to an impression of these companies being very talented and skilled, it seems to me that they shroud this is process and technique. Hoekman does a fair enough job at giving compliments to the actual applications though, that the skill and talent behind them does indeed shine through. A chapter about these facets would be greatly appreciated.


All in all, Designing the Obvious is an amazing book, crafted together from years of experience in understanding applications and deep insight into how the latest and greatest Web 2.0 applications are designed to be obvious. From countless examples and an amazing amount of techniques, both before and during design, Hoekman provides a wonderful platform from which more amazing, and dynamic applications can be built. If you are at all in the market for designing web based applications, especially Web 2.0 applications, this book is hands down a necessity, particularly for those who are still meditating on their last purchase.

If you like what Clifton says here, buy “Designing the Obvious”:http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Obvious-Common-Approach-Application/dp/032145345X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178611116&sr=1-1/boxesandarrows-20 now.

*About the book*

Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design
by Robert Hoekman Jr.
Paperback, 264 pages
New Riders Press, (October 2006)
ISBN: 032145345X


  1. Nice to hear a reference to ‘5S’ and kaizen as I have worked in the auto industry for many years before ‘graduating’ to IA. I think that there are many concepts developed in this sector that are transferable to other areas e.g. agile development, concurrent engineering, 7 muda (wastes), poke-yoke (idiot proofing) processes etc.
    Keeping stuff fairly minimal is important when I browse the web. I find that sites that have too much going on give me an instant mental headache and I tend to hit the back button immediately.
    Thanks for the review…next stop Amazon

  2. Excellent review, and I loved the extended analogy about finding your glasses! Your understanding of zen also is quite good, Clifton, which I always appreciate in any context.
    To paraphrase Robert M. Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I’ll let other people worry about saving the world (with web apps or the Next Big Thing); I have a website to fix.
    Good web design creates a functional synergy between content and structure. Great web design strips away anything that breaks that synergy. The best way to emphasize that on the web is to do it zealously, consistently and cheerfully. Cheers to you and to Robert Hoekman, Jr. for the reminders!

  3. Clifton: Thanks very much for your incredibly kind review. I really identify with the connection between Zen and the topics in the book. In fact, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence” is one of my all-time favorite books. I think there’s a lot of untapped opportunities to achieve Flow (very similar to Zen) in web application design, and it’s something I spend a lot of time researching and working towards.

    Patrick: Funny you should mention poka-yoke. There’s a whole chapter in “Designing the Obvious” devoted to the subject of handling and preventing errors, and poka-yoke is discussed in depth. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

  4. “Zen is the art of practicing meditation in everything you do and existing solely in a mental space.”

    Not to quibble, but as a thirteen-year practitioner of the form (at least in one of its variants), I have to disagree rather sharply with your definition. It has nothing to do with “existing solely in a mental space” and rather more to do with existing fully in everything you do, whether that’s chopping wood, carrying water, singing a song or developing a Web site.

  5. “I can only surmise that Hoekman recommends a focus on activity because that is the most conscious of the interactive processes.”

    I’d further this thought and suggest that by one’s being involved in the activity, he/she allows the elements of that activity to be blended into his or her own experiences and understandings. Perhaps it is the most conscious of the interactive processes, but it also provides the most value. For example, if you and I were both working on the same design team, you would interpret and digest the expereience of the activity differently that I would. (I know this as being labeled “scripting” and/or “schema.”) Then next time we are on a design team together or we are working on a similar project, we now have a more robust degree of experience to draw upon–experience and utility unique to each of us. (For example, as you wrote, we remember the story of activity from “Designing the Obvious,” not all the discrete concepts that were tied into it along the way: we experienced the same story but you remember some details, I remember others.)

    Or using the glasses example, we understand the glasses-lost-in-a-bag scenario (scripting), we know what to expect from a search, and we anticipate one of two outcomes. But the next time you and I search for missing glasses, we may go about it differently. You may look systematically through the regions of your bag, I may dig around randomly; you may then decide to establish a permanent pocket or location for the glasses, I may continue to carelessly toss them in the bag. The point is we take what we’ve experienced and used it in ways relative to our own particular tastes, styles, habits, personalities, etc. The ‘activity’ mentioned in the quote embodies a degree of engagement unique to each of us.

    It allows us to continually make the experience our own, fold it into who we are, and then use it or call it up the next time we encounter a new but similar experience…which we then make our own, fold it into who we are, and use it, etc. etc. THAT’S the Zen.

  6. Thank you all for your comments, all good discussion and feedback.

    All appologies if the zen aspect seems to be the forefront, I’m not an avid practitioner, or even a slight one. My knowledge on the reality of the subject is limited to the osmosis of growing up within the reasonably eastern populous of vancouver.

    Here’s an article on the same stuff from fast company. They are flogging the notion of one page designs, dashboarding, minimalization, that type of thing. Worth it for the comparability.


    Thanks again
    Clifton Evans

  7. It’s a quite useful review and it goes straight to the point. Too bad I can’t finde the book here (Chile).

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