This summer has, so far, proven to be a very busy one (music to an Independent’s ears!). I had the opportunity this June, to travel to 3 different cities, present 3 different talks, and, in the process, I got to meet, interact with, and learn from many different people.
My first trip was to San Francisco for the UX Strategies Summit. There, partner in crime Donna Lichaw and I, unleashed our Adaptable Product Roadmaps workshop. Although the workshop is one that we prefer to give as a full day, we were able to successfully present our points and exercises to an eager group in a 3 hour format. The workshop is one that we use to help both clients and practitioners alike, to figure out new products, features, updates to old products, etc, in a prioritized, organized, and engaging way.
My next stop was in Chicago for ConFab for Nonprofits. There, Donna and I teamed up again, but this time to present our Storymapping: A MacGyver Approach to Content Strategy talk. This is also something we usually present as either a full day, or a few day workshop, but at this event we presented an overview of our method, how it works, outputs from a real-life case study, and then, of course, fielded some great questions. This talk also seemed to be a big hit with the group, and we learned alot from all the feedback.
Lastly, I headed over to Las Vegas for Future Insights Live!, where I debuted my Why I’m Sick of Calling Myself a UX Designer talk. I was extremely excited and nervous for this one. Luckily, I got the intended response from the crowd. That being, an ongoing conversation about the validity of our job titles, and how the topic as a whole effects this industry. I look forward to, hopefully, sharing this talk with many more groups in the future.
So, if you’ve been wondering where I have been for the past month or so, wonder no more. Apologies for not keeping up the writing, but there will be more to come later on this Summer and Fall. What am I going to do in the meantime? Well, I finally realized just how exhausting all this travel stuff is. So, besides working on some awesome projects that I hope to write more about in the near future, I’ll be looking to catch up on some sleep. I do hope that you all get to do the same!
And, lastly, here are some slides for your viewing pleasure. Thoughts are, of course, always welcome.
As I pour through my spreadsheet of blog ideas, I keep happening upon (probably not by accident) ideas that I have had over the years around the term UX Designer and, more specifically, whether or not the term makes sense (I.e. means something). Now, I realize that the title UX Designer DOES in fact “mean something” to many people. I think what has sparked this flow of ideas for me, however, is that the title means so many different things to so many different people. This space between the meanings is where I’m finding both internal and external conflict around the title’s purpose. Today, I want to dive into this even further, and, hopefully, get your thoughts and feedback as well (Yes, I’m adding another log to this fire. So, all you old school UXers can stop rolling your eyes now.).
This topic is nothing new. Most of the known digital technology industry walks around having a firm belief in the validity of the term UX Designer. Many people think things like “User Experience is, of course, the most important part of the product AND you need to have a UX Designer to have a ‘good UX’”. Or, other people think things like “UX Designers. Those are the people that make sure the product’s UX (but really they mean interface) is great!”. Or, they may think “UX Designers. Those are the people that are glorified visual designers.”. Whatever anyone thinks, it’s obvious that the title UX Designer is something that exists in a myriad of ways. In the digital design community, many times it’s a lauded profession; one that you acquire after knowing everything there is to know about “the UX” including interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and more. For this last point I can admit that I have also thought that UX Designer was a lauded profession. I bought into this concept… hell, I built a business around this concept! But today, I wonder, is the title UX Designer really all I, and many others (those that think it’s the *ish title), have made it out to be?
Why Lis, Why?
Why am I even pondering beating this dead horse? Well, as I was pouring through said blog idea spreadsheet, I found an idea I had back in early 2013. Seems I was scouring the web (read wasting time) and I found this quote, and I realized I needed to get this thought out of my head.
Although this quote was not targeted at the field of UX Design, it still stopped me in my tracks and caused me to reflect on the profession. Why? Because it brought to the surface, again (at least for me), the question of whether or not an experience can be designed. Of course, this quote that I found is not based on scientific or academic research (although if you have some to share I’d love to see it!), but the meaning of it felt true to me. So I’m going to move forward in this post assuming it is true (this, dear reader, is what is called fair warning).
The debate on whether or not an experience can be designed has been raging on since, what feels like, the beginning of the field. The following are just a few of the many pieces out there on the topic:
The way that I see it, is that each side is looking at the User’s Experience as one of two things. Those that agree with the idea that an experience can be designed often conceive the user experience as an input into a product or service. It is something that happens before the product or service is created and a user uses it, i.e. something they “do” to make a product or service better – “I do UX!”. On the other hand, those that say that experience can’t be designed, but can be designed for, see that the user experience as an output of the product and service, i.e. something that happens because of using a product or service – “How can you do something that happens later?”.
I’ve somehow found myself a part of this debate, and, have recently realized that I firmly agree with the latter, UX is an output NOT an input. Meaning I believe that the user’s experience exists when a user uses a product or service; i.e when they undergo it. I don’t think it can be argued that, to an extent, we can predict when a user will have a better experience if everything and everyone shown here has been accounted for in the creation of that product or service the user is using. However, I no longer believe that User Experience is something we inject into the creation of said product or service.
Given this new realization, I asked myself: If UX is an output and not an input… can the title UX Designer make sense? Can there be someone whose job it is to design the user’s experience IF the user’s experience it not something that goes into the product or service, but something that comes out of it.
I would argue that No, this title does not make sense (I.e. mean something) given this point. And, to be honest with you, I don’t have much more to say on what my new viewpoint means (so I suppose my good friend Donna Lichaw might say that this piece is a cliffhanger).
And Now It’s Your Turn
Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the battle that never ends. Do you think the UX is an input or an output? Given your opinion does the title UX Designer still make sense to you and why?
Whew ok folks there you have it. Another piece of wood added to this fire. Let the flames rage on!
I keep a list of ideas, buried deep in Google Drive, of blog posts that I mean to write. This is a great way to ensure that I never lose a spark of inspiration. However, this list only works if one takes the time to go back and look at it (which I rarely ever do). But, today I did take the time to go back to that list and I found an idea from almost two years ago that happened to catch my eye. And, even though I have written about this topic before, it has been etched into my brain so deeply, that I decided to write about it again today. What is that idea? That Information Architecture is, and always has been, about creating for the user’s experience.
This idea may not be new to many of you (I hope). UX has been the new IA for some time now, and all of us who started out by calling what we did Information Architecture knew that it involved the user’s experience. Problem was, at least for me, we just didn’t know how to describe it very well, or did we?
Is it IA, or is it UX?
Like what happens to most everyone, when I meet new people they often ask me what I do. For a long time I told them I practiced Information Architecture. Then, as the UX tide came in, I started to surf as a User Experience practitioner. But, more and more I have found myself back riding the Information Architecture wave. I tell you this not to show you what a flake I am, but to show that it’s obvious, and has been obvious, that something was missing in IA before, that enabled one to confidently say “I do Information Architecture which means I model user experiences.”.
And so, two years ago, I think I found that missing statement. I logged it in the back of my mind, as well as in my ideas for blog posts to write, and it has been festering ever since. And, although what I’m sharing with you today about Information Architecture is not all together new, I did want to share the link with you, to hopefully implant the idea of what Information Architecture is in your brains so that it festers and grows.
Of course, all of the material is interesting, but the line that stuck out to me, and that began my road back to IA was this:
“Information architecture relates to science as its models draw on insights and theories of cognition. And its models relate to art as they aim to create a meaningful experience.”
Whoa. There it was, again, in black and white. Information Architecture models aim to create a meaningful experience. Duh! How could I have forgotten this in my aim to describe what I did while saying I practiced Information Architecture? You see, those practicing Information Architecture create models which aim to create a meaningful experience for the users of those models. Brilliant!
Thus, all those years ago, when User Experience came on the scene and sounded so much easier to describe than Information Architecture, I abandoned my IA post for the promised land of UX. However, I realize that the words I was looking for to describe my value were right in front of me all along.
I share these thoughts with you today, dear reader, in the hopes that you begin to understand this:
The User Experience is not an input or a discipline, but is, instead, the result of modeling information in such a way that creates meaning in an experience.
AND, That modeling of information… that’s the job of someone who is practicing Information Architecture.
I love being a consultant because I love the freedom to choose my work, the freedom to choose when I work, and the overall ability to meet and work with so many different teams. Given all of these positives, there are still downsides to consulting. One big downside is that I don’t always get to see my work come to life because I’m not inside the company helping to push the work through. However, with Light & Motion, a client that I worked with last year on their site redesign, I was able to see my work come to life! The team pushed through and, two weeks ago, released the new version of lightandmotion.com. Of course, the design and photography are beautifully done, but the reason that this is the Most Beautiful project (or at least in the top 3 projects) I’ve ever worked on is not due, in my point of view, to either of these characteristics. The beauty, dear reader, is in the way the information is architected. Allow me to explain.
The Problems With the Old Site
“I feel like you should be wearing a cape or some sort of super hero outfit. The title Information Architect makes me think you are here to save the day.” Those were the words of my client when we met for the first time in the airport in Monterey California. I had flown across the country to help Light & Motion to redesign their site, and, as you can see, they needed help pretty badly.
Besides the look of the site being dated, there were some other major issues they were facing. First the navigation, and the way information was organized on the site made it hard for users to find what they were looking for. Second, and perhaps more important, was that the way the site was setup did not properly reflect Light & Motion’s core mantras, nor did it allow them to properly showcase the extent that their product could be used. Instead it segregated products into Dive, Bike, and Outdoor. These categories gave users very little idea of all that the L&M lights could accomplish. Third, customers usually were segregated into one of the three categories, however, L&M wanted to bring customers across the categories to see the power of the products. This just wasn’t possible given the old site setup. Lastly, the site’s product pages, and in fact the site in general, didn’t support the way users shop for lights. This meant that the site wasn’t suited to get users to purchase. This was a big ecommerce no no.
From there, Craig hired me to help come up with a concept of what the site should be, how it should be laid out, and what the features & functions would ultimately need to be to support the L&M vision.
From our meetings with the L&M team, I could tell right away that they were a different company. They were passionate about their products and their users. They had sketches everywhere of the lights and the accessories that their users would need to participate in the activities they loved. They had a 3D printer onsite so that they could test their concepts. They were invested in, and passionate about, their line of products in a way that I had never seen. They did 95% of their work onsite in Monterey (including creating and shipping the lights!). It is a special company indeed.
Thus, I took great care with this project. I took a good amount of time to use Craig’s (amazing) work and research to create the right concept model for the site (this defined the entities of the site at a high level and how they related to each other. i.e. Products, The Company, The Activity, etc). From that really abstract level, I started to narrow down into the details of what information needed to be on the site, and how that needed to be constructed to meet L&Ms goals. From what Craig put together, it was so easy for me to see that the site needed to be all inclusive. People do a LOT of research when buying these types of lights because for one they are not cheap, but also these users are centered around the activities they use the lights for. Biking to work, diving photography, mountain biking… these are life mantras for the people that L&M’s products service. They care a great deal about the activities, and thus the lights that go with the activities.
Therefore, I was able to discern that the ability to shop both by product line/name AND activity was a key component that was missing from the old site. Further, making sure that both the products and the activities were all inclusive, content and information wise, was hugely important. And, lastly, making sure that all of these connected back to L&M’s presence in the industry, and that their mantra and passion for lights shone (pun intended) through was a huge deal.
You can see from the product and activity pages on the new site, how these relationships play out. And the beautiful thing about the IA that was created (and executed to!) is that it’s seamless. A user can move from activity to light, from light to activity, from light to company information behind why they light was created, and more without leaving the site, getting lost on the site and definitely without getting bored!
To bring it all together, L&M hired the Bkwld team to execute the design, and boy did they! Their work is not only beautiful BUT it’s, more importantly, designed for the IA. They did a magnificent job of taking the direction that the Information Architecture laid out in both information and concept, and creating a design that enhances that direction.
After meetings and arguments and successes between all these parties, what L&M released two weeks ago is a thing of beauty for lighting purchasers across the world. It is a site that is delightful, informative, representative of the company, and indulgent of user needs. I’m extremely proud of the work that everyone on the team has done (especially L&M for sticking with us and pushing the work through), and I look forward to hearing the successes that come from it!
By valuing Information Architecture, and not just the “little” IA of the navigation, but the “big” IA that helped to lay the foundation and structure for the site, I’m sure L&M will see huge lifts in not only their sales, but in the passionate and loyal customers that reflect the company itself.
Some time ago, I was sitting in a client meeting, reviewing the QA version of their website’s check out flow. The development team had just finished putting together all of the changes that I had designed for checkout, and I was looking through to make sure everything matched up. Luckily, many of the items that I had designed were accounted for, and the QA site was looking great. On the flip side, I found a few, smaller items, that had been missed. When I asked the technology lead about them, he replied that we didn’t have time to go back and fix them, and since they weren’t core functionality, we could put them on the backlog for later. This got me thinking ‘How many times have I heard this before?’, and then I thought ‘I know these items would enhance this flow a thousand times over, but I know that they’ll never really get done. We never actually go into the backlog’. Then I got to thinking… why?
Why is it that we forget about the little things? More importantly, why are the details of our designs and ideas being overlooked and missed? I have been in this profession for over 10 years now. This is a trend I saw when I first started, and I still see it today. Those building out our designs, often don’t see every detail, and when we point the smaller details out, they are often not important enough to fix. I don’t know how our current state still includes a lack of getting into this detail.
And not developing and designing to the details causes us some problems. First off, the details are usually where the “delight” of a product is. Follow a site like Little Big Details and you can see all of the many small details that make products so much better to use than their competitors.
The second problem we see when we over look details is that these small details do not usually take a lot of design or development time to make happen. In fact, if we took the small amount of extra time to design and develop the details, we’d see a tremendous payout with the user’s experience with our product. Thus we are forgoing this return of user delight, in order to make a schedule, or stick to a development process.
The third problem is our product experiences are not progressing at a rate that they should. I believe that missing these details is what is stifling experiences across the web. It’s not just the big product ideas that set a website apart. Most times it’s simply the UI and flow around that website that makes the difference. But without the details, and holding others accountable for designing and coding them, we are missing out on our own progression.
The thing here is that I don’t know why this is still happening. Why do we allow designers and/or developers to miss the details? Obviously there is more than just the UX team in play, and it’s a technology community problem, but I’m just not able to see why I’m having the same conversations from 10 years ago still today.
Therefore, I write this piece as a question to all of you. How are we still here, and how do we solve the problem of detailing out delight, and still not seeing our details being designed to and developed for? What am I missing that you are seeing out there in the world that can help me, and all of us get there?
Ultimately my goal is to stop getting these small “enhancements” put on the backlog or “shelf” and to start having my teams get it right the first time. I believe by doing so the products we all work on will be much better off, and our work can progress exponentially because we won’t keep coming back to the same old conversations.
Thus, what are your thoughts on how we can move forward from where we are to getting our details designed and developed correctly the first (or even second) time around?
I just returned from the Interaction 14 conference in Amsterdam, and I’ve been reflecting on the information I learned there. I was honored to be facilitating a full day workshop, Interaction Design Beyond the Wireframe, at the conference. I love and hate facilitating this particular workshop. I love it because I believe in the content and approach, and it’s great to see this affect other designers lives. I hate it because sometimes it feels as if the concepts are old and no longer useful. But, after last Wednesday’s workshop event I realized that this information is still very much useful. Also, as I was watching the participants go through the activities I was reminded of a question that fellow UXer, and friend, Nathan Gao asked me some months ago. He said to me “Do you ever look back on the work you did, and just hate it?”. “What do you mean?”, I asked. “Well I mean now that you have learned a lot more, and you have done a lot more, do you ever look back and realize that the work you did was ugly, not technologically as advanced as it could be… stuff like that?” I paused and thought about this for a moment and responded “Honestly, no. And let me tell you why.”
In this world of UX and Interaction Design, we so often view our work as a work of art. We think of it as a blend of science and art, reflecting both best practices as well as internal purpose, aesthetic, and opinion. It was even mentioned during IxD 14 that we are both science based and art based. I always thought it was interesting to view our work this way… interesting and problematic.
The issue that arises when we think of ourselves as artists, is that we think of our work as art, and this causes pain points. First, we judge and critique our work as art. We judge the “look” of the deliverables, and the savviness of the interaction. We judge the emotional response invoked by the deliverable or the sketch or the prototype or whatever it is we, the interaction designer, provides.
But, at least from my point of view, my solution, which is reflected in, but not defined as, what I deliver, has nothing to do with art, unless I am actually designing the visual look and feel (which I personally don’t do). Strictly speaking of non visual design deliverables then, I see no art reflected in them. Everything that I have included in them is based on factual evidence of either user need, business need or technological constraints. If a user needs a way to view search results by date… I add a sorting control. If they need to find a way to company contact information… I add a contact us link. I also don’t view my wireframes as the final layout and product, I view them as information design. I.e. their purpose is to inform the interface by showcasing information relationships and priorities. Basically I don’t care about how it looks in the end, just that the right information and controls are present. Therefore, nothing I add in my work is based off my own opinion or internal narrative, so I don’t judge my work as art.
Going with this argument then, judging our work as art, means that we must be, in same ways, adding our own opinions and narrative to our work. And, if we are doing that, then we aren’t doing user experience design or interaction design, we are doing art. So the biggest problem with thinking of ourselves as artists is that we think of our work as art and add our own opinions and narrative to it as opposed to keeping it strictly about upholding user needs and business needs.
In order to avoid this problem, then, and to create work that is representative of our user needs, business needs and technology constraints, I believe we need to take the art point of view away for a minute. I KNOW this is going to cause a tear in the universe, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about and wanted to write about for some time.
So, I implore you dear readers to help me to see if I am on the right path with this thinking, completely mad with this thinking, correct with this thinking, or somewhere in between. Is there a cross over between Art and our UX and IxD deliverables (sans visual design), and if so, where is it?
Last Fall, Paul McAleer and I were talking a lot about our Mapping Business Value to UX workshop. In fact, we were talking about it so much, that I even wrote about it on the Keeping It Real About UX blog. I’m extremely attached to the subject, not just of the workhop, but of what this workshop, the presentation Paul and I gave at UX STRAT, as well as our work on UXmatters.com represents for the UX community. That is a trend in not only talking about our business and technology partners as our users, but also bringing real work outcomes and discussions to our conferences and events.
All this being said, I wanted to take the time to point out that all of our talk is not just for talk’s sake, but that from it we have created an activity that other UXers can take and use in the hopes of establishing better communication of the value of UX with their organizations. The Mapping Business Value to UX framework is just that, a framework that others can (and we hope do) utilize and customize to make their own, in order to describe the value of UX to their businesses.
Thus you can download the PDF of the framework with step by step instructions of how to employ it. You can also re-read our UX Matters articles to get more information on how we used it, what worked for us, and what didn’t. Hopefully you can use the #MBVUX framework in your own work, and if you do we’d love to hear back about how it went. If you have questions in the meantime… you know where to find me.
Now that the new year is upon us, I decided I to take the time to think about what it is I want to accomplish in 2014. Yeah, I realize I’m a few days over due for the New Year, but better late than never. With that said, here are a few mantras that I’m going to attempt to stick to in 2014 in order to guide my intended accomplishments.
Do What You Love
I have written about this before, the idea that there is a lack of passion in my work. That’s not to say I don’t love what I do, I do. I enjoy working in UX and consulting a great deal. However, I very often find myself doing things (attending certain events/conferences, writing a certain piece, attending a meeting, working with a certain client, etc) because I feel that I “should” do them. This year, I’m going to have a sharp focus on doing things because I love to do them. Of course, love of stuff doesn’t always pay the bills, but ask yourself this: why can’t it? Or, at least, why can’t it help to? Thus, by following this mantra I hope to do some, or all, of the following in 2014:
• Speak at more non-UX focused conferences and events
• Write for non-UX focused sites and publications
• Start or contribute to some sort of podcast or audio/video blog
• Write more for creative purposes, and more creative pieces
• Collaborate more with trusted and new friends/colleagues on projects, ideas, and more
Find What You Love
Doing what you love to do means that first you have to figure what it is you love to do. Thus, this mantra is about me being aware and in the moment enough to realize when I’m falling in love with something I’m doing. It also means not being afraid to love to do something that others hate, and to not be afraid to get to know myself better. By following this mantra I hope to do more of the following this year:
• Attend and be present at different types of events, classes, etc.
• Meet even more liked minded individuals that I can learn and gain inspiration from
• Continue to fight through any hesitation
Be What You Love
Lastly, I think there is something to be said about embodiment. I’m talking about not just going through the motions of goals and goal setting, but to understand why you are are setting goals for yourself, and then to embody that reasoning both internally and externally. This mantra is about staying true to yourself and your beliefs, working with and for people that remind you of who and why you are, and all the while asking yourself “why am I doing this?” and believing and aligning with the answer.
There you have it folks, my goals for 2014. This list may seem Non-UXy, or too general, but I’m standing behind it 100%, because I believe that by better all aspects of yourself, you will easily better your work.
It may seem a bit early to write an end of year post, however I believe that consistent reflection is one of the best exercises that one can do. And, since I have been reflecting quite a bit lately, I thought I would apply these thoughts to my 2013 and share with you what I have been up to, where I’m going, and what I’ve learned.
One thing I have realized is that this fall and winter I have not had the time to keep up with writing for my Keeping It Real About UX blog. This might normally be a bad thing, however, the main reason I haven’t had time to write here is because I have been busy contributing to some amazing publications such as UX Matters and UX Mastery.
For UX Matters I partnered with Paul McAleer to write to the UX Community about our attempt at a new way to Map Business Value to UX, and to educate our organizational partners while doing so. So far, we’ve gotten some great feedback about the pieces, and we’re always open to hearing more! I’ve included these posts here, in case you missed them:
Many thanks to both UX Matters and UX Mastery for allowing me to be a part of such an esteemed community of writers.
The second thing I realized is that, earlier in the year, myself and my interns (who are now real working world UXers!) did get the chance to contribute some pieces to the Keeping It Real About UX blog. Here you can find the top 5 viewed posts from 2013
Third, as I look into the new year, I also realized I have some amazing speaking opportunities to be excited about for 2014. Top of mind is my full day workshop Interaction Design Beyond the Wireframe that I’ll be facilitating at this year’s Interaction 14 event in Amsterdam! If you plan on attending and are looking to learn all about IxD outside of the interface, I’d love to see you there.
Lastly, one thing I realized in my end of year reflections is quite how busy I, and all of us, have been. Thus, I plan on taking the next few weeks to ease my mind, find, again, some inspiration, and reflect on my goals for 2014. I encourage each and every one of you to do the same. I encourage you to take some time for yourself to reflect on where you have been, where you are going and what you have learned along the way. Only then can you make the next year, even better than this one!
For months I have been trying to write a post about Detroit. Why Detroit? One, because it has been in the news so much. Two because, as an IA, I think the downfall of Detroit is quite obvious. The city is a manufactured city, instead of a natural place of settlement. It was put together to help fuel the auto plants, and now is faltering in a huge way. But, this isn’t surprising to me. It reminds me of all of the new ideas that startups and even large businesses have that just seem so meaningless. Why are they meaningless? Because they have zero to do with natural human behavior.
Scott Berkun wrote this piece about Google Glass, and I couldn’t agree more. I think we get distracted a great deal, by the coolest and newest technology. Sometimes this is important, but many times it takes us away from our roots. These are, understanding and designing for, and to enhance human behavior. We want to make our users lives better, but in a sustainable way, not in a way that will fall apart.
So the next time you see something new and shiny, I’d like you to ask yourself is this meaningful? And if so how will it help people in real life (not just how it could help people, one day, maybe, with a whole bunch of changes). We IAs are no different than city architects. We have a responsibility to our users and our businesses to not throw together ideas without an idea of how they can sustain, but to vet them, to make them better and to make them help people live better lives.