3.30.2001
Sharing
In an effort to contribute to the growing collection of information about practicing IA and User Experience design, I am starting to create PDF files of artifacts and information from my experience. Much like Jesse James Garrett's jjg.net: information architecture resources, I will eventually collect this info in one spot.

The first item to share:
A Large Project Process(PDF file, 25k): This diagram visualizes the project process cycle that my User Experience Design team at AltaVista used when working on new projects. The diagram shows the roles, responsibilities and deliverables for the team across a timeline of sectioned steps in the UE design process.

One of the important things about this diagram, is that we developed this process in conjunction with other cross functional team members. The process also shows the iterative loops and interactions with other main team members - Usability, Product Marketing, HTML and Engineering. There are other groups in the cross functional team, but for the purposes of the design cycle - they are minimal in terms of interaction and influence over the design process.

We found this visualization helpful in defining roles and responsibilities, especially in groups with overlapping skillsets (IA and Usability) and also helpful to upper management to describe the process of collaboration and handoffs. My team consisted of Information Architects, UI designers, Visual designers and Technical Writers. The breadth and depth of our skills and responsibilities is reflected in the main body of this diagram. For some organizations, this center section could be divided into two - with IA separated from design - but I personally feel, and built my group to reflect this, that IA is part of the overall design process and shouldn't necessarily be separated out. (our team experienced this for a couple of months after a reorg and it was a disaster given the skills and talents of the group)

This process diagram does not have any assigned timing to the sections and was intended to be a telescoping process - moving and adjusting depending on the overall product lifecycle.

I believe this diagram (or variations of it) can be a useful tool to the design group in many types and sizes of organizations.
posted by erin malone 12:50 PM

3.26.2001

Just got my first issue of dot-dot-dot, graphic design / visual culture magazine and am very impressed. This is the second issue and is devoted to design criticism and discourse. The second issue has an interesting article about Design Philosphy that looks at gender-oriented perception. I read it and thought I should really be absorbing this, but is is basically unintelligible and too theoretical for my tastes.

There is a very good article by Robin Kinross lamenting over the need to acknowledge and understand our failures as designers. The author talks about how the current trend in magazines and monographs is to gloss over the designer's career and show all the good stuff. Compare this to a passage about El Lissitzky that speaks about his fight with Tuberculosis and working as an artist in a tough political situation / time. This knowledge emphasizes the triumphs of the artist as designer and Kinross speaks to us about the importance and use of failure. The knowing of context is as important as the accolades and triumphs we are used to seeing.

The journal is worth seeking out (can be found at Emigre.com) and I am on the hunt for issue one - which is sold out.
posted by erin malone 10:07 AM

3.21.2001

Thinking About Philosophy of Design
I have been thinking about what it means to be a "designer" lately. All this discussion about IA vs. Interaction design vs. graphic design vs. usability has stimulated a lot of good conversation and has prompted me to think about what is means to design in the first place. What is design?

It is defined as both a noun and a verb. The dictionary says:
de•sign (d-zn)
v.
1.a. To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent
b. To formulate a plan for; devise
2. To plan out in systematic, usually graphic form
3. To create or contrive for a particular purpose or effect
4. To have as a goal or purpose; intend
5. To create or execute in an artistic or highly skilled manner

n.
1.a. A drawing or sketch.
b. A graphic representation, especially a detailed plan for construction or manufacture.
2. The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details

While the definition talks about the activity of design as a practice, it doesn't speak to the meaning of design - both culturally and professionally. How is what we do meaningful in the culture? What is our responsibility with our society as designers, as creators, as consumers?

I recently finished reading a small book called The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design by Vilem Flusser. Flusser was a Czech-born media critic and philosopher who approached the philosophy of design as a subject foretymological analysis. He is an outsider, not a designer and approaches his opinions from an observational stance. This book consists of a series of short essays that I found quite interesting. A different perspective to say the least. The first essay breaks down the word design into its root form from the Greek. Flusser draws parallels in context between the word design: associated with cunning and deceit, and other significant words: mechanics and machine. He eventually ends up at the word technology and goes on to discuss the context of art and technology in culture and the discovery of the design behind them. It is an interesting approach to study the break down and meaning of the words and apply context to their use.

Flusser died in 1991, but many of the essays in his book foresees the future of the Internet - one of the reasons I found this book so fascinating. In his essay "The Factory", he talks about the development of the machine through time - from early stone age rocks and tools to the industrial revolution. He then goes on to discuss the evolution of mechanized machines and robots and eventually sees a future where, "A new method of manufacturing - i.e. of functioning - is coming into being: The human being is a functionary of robots that function as a function of him. This new human being, the functionary, is linked to robots by thousands of partly invisible threads: Wherever he goes, stands or lies, he carries the robots around with him (or is carried around by them) and whatever he does or suffers can be interpreted as a function of the robot." Sounds a lot like the web and the personal computer. That extension of technology and the machine to human and the human need to create through this technology is a fundamental shift from the industrial nature of creation. We create in the ether with no tangible artifacts of our time and thinking. We design.

Flusser goes on to say, "This provides a hint as to what factories of the future will look like: like schools in fact. They will have to be places where human beings can learn how robots function so that these robots can relieve human beings of the task of turning nature into culture. In fact, the human beings of the future in the factories of the future will learn to do this by, with and from robots. Thus in the case of the factory of the future, we will have to think more in terms of scientific laboratories, art academies and libraries and collections of recordings than in terms of present-day factories. And we shall have to look upon the robot-man of the future more as an academic than an as artisan, worker or engineer." I believe we are already seeing this as the world becomes driven by the knowledge worker, the computer-Internet jockey. We make information, we design information, we design experiences through and within this information.

The rest of this book is filled with other essays discussing Form, Ways of Seeing, Objects and Obstacles, Ethics of Industrial Design, Design as Theology, Architecture and things like Carpets and Pots. Many of the other essays talk about and expose the designer's task of inventing and deceiving to change the perception of the end user/viewer. These processes and skills as broken down by Flusser are worth reflecting on every now and then and thinking about how what we do affects ourselves our fellow humans and the cultures we send our work into. Thinking about the nature of design - the big design rather than the little design - is always a bit humbling. Design affects how we do everything. And how we see the world. We are inundated with it - whether it is ethereal - the Internet, television, music, etc. or tangible - our cars, highways, signage, airplanes, etc. We can't get away from it.
posted by erin malone 3:39 PM

3.17.2001

Reading On The Train
I have spent the last three weeks consulting up in San Francisco. Since I live in San Jose, this means I either have a long drive or I do the train. After experimenting with driving and BART, I opted to take CalTrain the last two weeks of this gig.

What this left me was over 30+ hours of uninterrupted time to myself. So I have been reading and catching up on the pile of books that I had been collecting and wishing I had time to read.

Having large chunks of time to read like this has allowed me to move from one book to another fairly quickly and when you do that, it allows you to see parallels and contrasts in the nature of the content.

I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture and Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 back to back. This was an interesting way to experience these two books. Interface Culture is terrific and Johnson mulls over and surmised about the future of things and experiences in the wired world. This book was published in 1997, so it is cool to look back at what he thought was groundbreaking and reflect on all the things that have and have not come to pass. We have not come as far in the past 4 years, as I think he projected we would, and other experiences that he mentioned as being the beginnings of something new downright flopped or disappeared without really being replaced. He spends a chunk of time discussing the Palace and Microsoft’s Comix Chat and looking at the nature of these spatial metaphors and the limitations they impose when applied to hundreds or even thousands of participants. Unlike my earlier references to Jessica Helfand’s thoughts about these community spaces, he is less confident of their ultimate success.

Wurman’s book reflects on the current state of things and seems very fresh, with quotes from books just published (Jeffrey Veen’s The Art and Science of the Web), essays by notables (Nathan Shedroff, Nigel Holmes, Eliot Christian, Ramana Rao) and illustrations and charts from Hugh Dubberly, Nigel Holmes, and others– it definitely is a book of the times. He moves back and forth from subjects that I found extremely compelling – the nature of the interface and the wealth of information people need to wade through and strategies for it’s presentation and organization – to preaching about himself and his work and the nature of boss employee communication. I felt that there were really two or three books here. One whole section on corporate communication and employee/boss relationships should have been it’s own book. The anecdotal information about his own work was best when used to illustrate a point about clarifying information or organizing in new meaningful ways, but when it sounded like an advertisement for his achievements, I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit too conceited for my tastes. (Note: This link goes to Understanding USA, a project of RSW's that is actually quite interesting.)

The most interesting thing about the two books and the fact that I read them one after the other – is that many of the themes are the same. Information and information retrieval are key and the interface – created by designers – is key to defining the clarity of this information in our lives at this time. Both authors talked about filters for data and filters for information. The distance of time and practice on this theme was also worth noting. Wurman’s book, published this year is very current. He is a designer and director of designers so has a hands-on perspective for creating these types of filters and interfaces. Johnson’s book is four years old – light years in Internet time – and he is an objective observer. However, many of the issues Johnson talks about - such as agents – continue to be evolving and worth careful discussion. Johnson devotes a whole chapter to agents and the evolution of smart agents. He observes the trend of developing agents and multiple views across information as aids in retrieving and understaning that information. We are still just starting to see this type of feature and functionality become part of our everyday computing lives. I have spent the last two months job hunting and if it weren’t for the jobsite agents bringing me job listings everyday I probably would be out of my mind with the endless research I would have had to have done. Wurman cautions against the uses of agents as they add to the amount of information a person must wade through everyday, thereby contributing to their overall information anxiety. He also cautions against customization as it takes away the serendipitous nature of exploration. The "I didn't know I was interested in that until I saw it" factor. I tend to agree with him on this point - I miss the old card catalogs of the libraries past for that same reason. When browsing the drawers, I would often find books that seemed interesting, only because they were similar by location or alphabetization. Now when I go to the library and search, it is based on keywords and what I get is very focussed. So while I get what I asked for, I have lost the random, unplanned discovery. The lesson here, in the use of agents is context. The appropriate context will deliver the best results. Using an agent to find job listings is good. Using one to deliver News is probably filtering out stories that I otherwise would be interested in reading.

Wurman criticizes graphic designers and the graphic design education arena for not preparing and teaching designers enough about information design and information architecture. In many ways I think he is right, there a lot of schools teaching style or software, but I also take issue with this, in that this is an exploding field and many schools are just now catching up. The programs and masters programs that specialize in information design and information as communication are doing well by their students and have been for a long time as corralling information is not really anything new. Think about the designers designing encyclopedias or multiple media communication systems with branding and style guides and suites of collateral, advertising, and internal and external communications. Many of the skills and techniques are the same.

While Steven Johnson’s book is a celebration of the interface and looks to the future as a bold and bright one worth exploring, I felt more cautious, overwhelmed and less optimistic reading Wurman’s book. I think this was in part due to the uneven nature of his book’s structure as well as the more critical nature of his observations of the world around him. Despite this, both books were excellent reads and offered much to think about as we travel along this wired adventure. (Ammendment: Wurman's book has some good chapters that I touch on here, but overall the book as a whole is very disjointed and difficult to follow. It is uneven in it's main thesis and the content is very self serving. In my discussions above, I am mostly concerned with a few early chapters and the guest written essays)

Next: Discussing Philosophy of Design
Then: More thoughts about Community and what that really means on the internet

posted by erin malone 8:53 PM

3.13.2001

Today we received notice that Argus was folding up shop. The news has reverberated across the IA community and people are lining up to comment and share their stories. It many ways what we are all doing is akin to a wake. Christina Wodtke sums it up well in elegant hack.

I remember 4 years ago when I first came across the Richard Saul Wurman book Information Architects and there was a definition of what that was in the book. I read it and realized that, that was what I did. All day. Every day. I asked my boss if I could change my title from Senior Graphic Designer to Information Architect. He laughed at me and said "what is that? That isn't a title or a real job. I have never heard of an Information Architect."

It wasn't until I got the O'Reilly book by Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville that I was finally vindicated - that this truly is a field with responsibilities and accountablitliy. It has a name and a scope of territory. I proudly call myself an Information Architect and bless Lou and Peter for paving the way. As my career has evolved from traditional graphic design into this wonderful world of IA, I see that in many ways, we are still having to fight the fight and justify why we need to be part of the team, why IA is as important or even more important than the visual design.

I met Lou this summer at the Advance for Design summit in Telluride. I gave him a hard time for the scathing review he did of the redesign of the AltaVIsta site that had launched in 1999. His points were right on and it was hard not to agree. I had worked on the part of the site run by the New Media division, and we had been told not to worry about the rest of the site. The outside world doesn't know what the inside issues are - politics, territorial groups in different divisions, etc. Later on, when we were giving our presentations, I sat in on Lou's and realized that the artifacts he was showing were very similar to mine. The process used to get from the beginning to the end was also the same. In my own work, as I evolved, I thought I had made a lot of stuff up. Seeing Lou's work from Argus, validated my work and the way my team worked in our company and I realized that there is a collective unconscious in our way of working.

Without Argus, we are all a little poorer and will have to work a little harder to make sure that we persevere. I am confident that these talented individuals will go on to spawn a new generation of firms out there and I look forward to seeing it.
posted by erin malone 9:25 PM

3.10.2001

Reading Lists and Relevant Sites
Never one to say that I don't jump on the bandwagon. I have posted some recommended readings that relate to my interests and things I write about as well as a listing of relevant sites.

Some more thoughts on Self Organizing
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the concept of self organizing sites. So far what I have read - spurred by the launch of Plastic.com and its outgrowth from Slashdot - has been primarily about sites full of Editorial. Sites for and by writers like: The Vines and Theme Stream and sites that are message board like allowing members to post and rate other members and their comments - Plastic, Slash. The self-organizing concept has had some application in Amazon - books bought by others, and Google. These applications are still in their infancy and are generally transparent to the end user.

My thoughts have been around how these concepts, that have been applied on these more specialty sites, can be manipulated and applied into more robust and commercial Community spaces. I have a penchant for Community and think that what we have out there on the web is still in its infancy. What types of experiences will lead these spaces into more robust and meaningful places. Are message boards enough? The concepts behind Plastic, if applied to traditional topic based message boards or listservs could be extremely interesting. What happens if this type of thinking is applied to live chat where conversations happen in time. Could there be visual variance to a personal conversation based on their ratings or judgements by other members of the conversation. This opens itself up to endless opportunities for the designer.

I was rereading an essay by Jessica Helfand last night . The essay - I design therefore I am - was written somewhere around 1996 - 1997 and published in the collection I have in 1997. While dated, she talks about chat virtual spaces and the concepts of avatars - the Palace and Microsoft's Comic Chat - are two spaces she refers to. I have to wonder about these places. They were hailed as the next great thing and then disappeared quietly from our radar. What went wrong? Was it bandwidth? Was it the concept? Was it that early adopters of this type of experience - chatting - felt the current tools were fine or was it that gamers - those experienced in virtual spaces - weren't chatters? Needless to say, some new models need to be developed. What should we learn from the failures of the past and how do we know exactly what was the failure - too soon in the evolution? Wrong model?

All the big portals - AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and until this past February - AltaVista -- have large Community memberships. AOL is probably the most known for this arena. How would an experience or concept like self organizing - do in this more commercial space. Obviously the best work, most popular, would rise to the top. What about niche topics with few interested? When I was at AltaVista and building the community space, we developed ratings systems that required multiple member (10) ratings before a rating would show up - that way you couldn't boost your own site up in the rankings - and we limited the time a person could rate their own and other sites. This helped move quality content up in the browsable directory and didn't require any kind of manual editor. Unfortunately, we didn't get to continue development or study the patterns or spread the concept across the message boards or chat spaces.
With the more sophisticated software being developed now, I wonder what other types of applications can be made or evolved - particularly when bringing people together and providing rich interaction. I am excited to see how this will play out.

posted by erin malone 4:14 PM

3.2.2001

User Centered Design Thoughts
Just finished reading Lou Rosenfeld's interview with Christina Wodtke. She shares her evolution into IA and her thoughts on user centered IA. I mention this because I have been interviewing for jobs all over the bay area and most of the firms want to know what my User Centered Design Process is. I think this is something that every interaction designer, web designer and information architect should think about - even write down. It is more than slapping in usability testing on the end of a product cycle. I have had to crystallize and articulate my process to many people and it has made me think about how I actually practice this process. I have also become more aware of when we have to cut corners and compress timelines and in most cases user testing suffers. So here are my thoughts on the whole process:

Most of this doesn't seem like it is too out there, but I have experienced release cycles that barely have had time for any thoughtful design let alone any interaction with our users. It usually will come back to bite you. Some good reading on the subject can be found in the book Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. I have left out a lot of detail in the process - particluarly about working through the Information Architecture and the Visual design and their symbiotic relationship - but that's for another day.

posted by erin malone 3:56 PM

3.1.2001

Some more thoughts in response to Peter Merholz's thoughts on my questions listed in the previous posting.

The collected history of interactive work, so far, seems to be scattered and niched into areas of performance and installation (Bill Viola or Laurie Anderson) or computers and technology (where hardware seems to have the stage over the UI or the experience - the Apple desktop metaphor excepted). I think a lot of the work by Brenda Laurel crosses out of this boundary into thoughtful exploration of experience design. Design for use.

There are starting to be collections online and in museums of interactive work collected as artifacts of culture or art. The Walker Art Center | New Media Initiatives | Gallery 9, as mentioned by Peter, the SFMOMA and Randall Packer's site: Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality as shared with me by Jeff Gates are all good starts.

My question "Who stands out of the crowd" was posed in reference to the Creator rather than the historian. In the large pool of IAs, interaction desingers, web designers, etc., whose work really stands out. From an aesthetic standpoint, an interactive standpoint, a usable standpoint. What metrics of success are we using to decide what is worth keeping or putting on that pedastal for time. I am interested in work that is not the stuff we are seeing collected by the museums above. Not the artists conceptual pieces, but commercial, functional type works.

What are we creating today, that is the equivalent of the great posters of Josef Muller Brockmann, Herbert Matter, Jean Carlu or A.M. Cassandre. What websites are as elegant and effective as the work of Paul Rand, Paula Scher, Herbert Bayer or William Golden? What work is being created now, that will be as surprising or elegant and usable 30 years from now?

I had occasion this past weekend to meet and chat with Massimo Vignelli. He asked, as a website was being shown on screen, "why did it have to look so ugly?" Good question. There are a lot of answers and maybe it won't be until we get past the visual ugliness and have effective, useful sites that perform well, and are well designed visually will we be at the level of printed work that seems to be worth saving for the long haul. I think we are still held hostage by the medium and the bandwidth but it is something worth striving for.

On Another Note
My sister is managing editor of the online journal Switch, the journal of the Cadre Laboratory - the Digital Media Arts program at San Jose State University. Our worlds are colliding and overlapping as she writes about data, multimedia and the concepts of social software in networks and communities. This discussion and theory in academia is great to follow, because it sparks ideas for practical application in our work as IAs. The whole notion of social networking and self organizing structures is fascinating to me.

A thought about Modular Design
I wanted to comment on the points that Peter makes in his Trends section of his thoughts from the ASIS&T 2001 Summit, Reflections and Projections Panel.
The idea of developing and designing in a modular fashion is great. I have been designing that way for years. The nature of my past work, was developing dynamically driven sites for newspaper clients. The company I was at developed city guides, auto guides, real estate guides, entertainment guides and yellow pages with maps and directions. The software/web sites were developed as independent modular structures that were then sold to third parties who published their content and laid on their visual design over the architecture. Basically it was a plug and play system of large and small modules. It was extremely flexible and we could reuse modules from one client to another - only the content and sometimes the placement on the page was different. Designing a site with this in mind from the beginning adds some early complexity to the design process, but it makes all the difference in the world later on to the flexibility of the publishing system and the page design for the end product.

Part of the key to design effectively in this way is to have technology that will support this flexibility. In addition, as designers we must understand enough of this technology to design effectively for it or to push the limits and stretch the technology. I was fortunate in my past job, that I worked with some truly great C++ engineers and that the development process was collaborative. I could push for new things and they would push back then turn around and build something even better.

posted by erin malone 9:30 PM