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Design’s role is to bridge context gaps

Andrew Hinton on making context understandable, smart devices, and programming literacy.

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I sat down with Andrew Hinton, an information architect at The Understanding Group and author of the recently released O’Reilly book Understanding Context. Our conversation included a discussion of information architecture’s role in the context of the IoT, the complexities of context, and the well-debated “everyone should learn to code” argument.

Context, information architecture, and experience design

Information architecture (IA) has always been a critical part of creating great products and services, and many would argue that, until now, it hasn’t been given the attention or respect it deserves. The need for thoughtful IA is increasing as we enter the multimodal world of IoT. Whether you call yourself an Information Architect or Designer, you need to care about context. Hinton offers up this hidden motivation for writing Understanding Context:

“I’ll confess, the book is a bit of a Trojan horse to kind of get people to think about information architecture differently than maybe the way they assume they should think about it.”

I followed up with Hinton via email for a bit more on how we need to view IA:

“People tend to assume IA is mainly about arranging objects, the way we arrange cans in a cupboard or books in a library. That’s part of it, but the Internet has made it so that we co-exist in places made of semantic and digital information. So when we create or change the labels, relationships, and rules of those places, we change their environment. Not just on screens, but now outside of screens as well. And, to me, the central challenge of that work is making context understandable.”

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Empathy is a stepping stone to a more important place: understanding

Understanding is what designers should be striving for as the backdrop for products.

Editor’s note: this post originally published on Medium; this lightly edited version is republished here with permission.

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About 10 years ago, I worked on a project for a new system for people with diabetes. We talked with many people who had diabetes or who helped educate diabetics. I even wore an insulin pump around for several days. In short, we were building up subject matter knowledge and empathy for the people we were designing for. During this user research phase, many of us (myself included) started to have actual nightmares that we had diabetes. I remember once looking at my toes, wondering if the tingling I was feeling was the onset of diabetes. (It wasn’t — probably just my foot was asleep.) We’d empathized to the point where we really identified with diabetics and their problems, which are considerable. We had so much empathy for them, in fact, that for several weeks, we couldn’t solve the problem. It seemed intractable, given what we knew about the condition and the state of technology at the time.

It wasn’t until we were able to step away from the diabetics’ perspective and become less empathetic that we were able to come up with a product concept. We needed distance — a psychic removal — in order to really assess the problem and take action to change it. In other words, we had to act like designers, which meant we had to be more objective, to sit outside and to the left of the problem space. As this experience taught me, too much empathy can be as crippling as too little.

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The 3 best experience design things we saw this week – March 20, 2015

UX evolution, tooting horns, and a rambunctious rant.

Our design editors curate the most notable, interesting, and important material they come across. Below you’ll find their recent selections.

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The evolution of UX

From da Vinci to Dreyfuss to Disney to Donald Norman, interactions between humans and technology have marked each key milestone in the longer-than-you-think history of user experience design. Here’s how UX design’s past sheds light on its future.

Arts_and_Crafts_Follow_the_Light_US_Army_FlickrSource: Image by U.S. Army on Flickr
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Design’s return to artisan, at scale

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Matt Nish-Lapidus on design's circular evolution, and designing in the post-Industrial era.

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In this week’s Radar Podcast episode, Jon Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies, chats with Matt Nish-Lapidus, partner and design director at Normative. Their discussion circles around the evolution of design, characteristics of post-Industrial design, and aesthetic intricacies of designing in networked systems. Also note, Nish-Lapidus will present a free webcast on these topics March 24, 2015.

Post-Industrial design relationships

Nish-Lapidus shares an interesting take on design evolution, from pre-Industrial to post-Industrial times, through the lens of eyeglasses. He uses eyeglasses as a case study, he says, because they’re a piece of technology that’s been used through a broad span of history, longer than many of the things we still use today. Nish-Lapidus walks us through the pre-Industrial era — so, Medieval times through about the 1800s — where a single craftsperson designed one product for a single individual; through the Industrial era, where mass-production took the main stage; to our modern post-Industrial era, where embedded personalization capabilities are bringing design almost full circle, back to a focus on the individual user:

“Once we move into this post-Industrial era, which we’re kind of entering now, the relationship’s starting to shift again, and glasses are a really interesting example. We go from having a single pair of glasses made for a single person, hand-made usually, to a pair of glasses designed and then mass-manufactured for a countless number of people, to having a pair of glasses that expresses a lot of different things. On one hand, you have something like Google Glass, which is still mass-produced, but the glasses actually contain embedded functionality. Then we also have, with the emergence of 3D printing and small-scale manufacturing, a return to a little bit of that artisan, one-to-one relationship, where you could get something that someone’s made just for you.

“These post-Industrial objects are more of an expression of the networked world in which we now live. We [again] have a way of building relationships with individual crafts-people. We also have objects that exist in the network themselves, as a physical instantiation of the networked environment that we live in.”

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Cross-device interactions and interusability

Designers need to create a coherent UX across all the devices with which a user interacts.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt by Claire Rowland from our upcoming book Designing Connected Products. This excerpt is included in our curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Designing for the Internet of Things ebook here.

In systems where functionality and interactions are distributed across more than one device, it’s not enough to design individual UIs in isolation. Designers need to create a coherent UX across all the devices with which the user interacts. That means thinking about how UIs work together to create a coherent understanding of the overall system, and how the user may move between using different devices.

Cross-platform UX and usability

Many of the tools of UX design and HCI originate from a time when an interaction was usually a single user using a single device. This was almost always a desktop computer, which they’d be using to complete a work-like task, giving it more or less their full attention.

The reality of our digital lives moved on from this long ago. Many of us own multiple Internet-capable devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and connected TVs, used for leisure as well as for work. They have different form factors; may be used in different contexts; and some of them come with specific sensing capabilities, such as mobile location.

Cross-platform UX is an area of huge interest to the practitioner community. But academic researchers have given little attention to defining the properties of good cross-platform UX. This has left a gap between practice and theory that needs addressing.

In industry practice, cross-platform UX has often proceeded device by device. Designers begin with a key reference device and subsequent interfaces are treated as adaptations. In the early days of smartphones, this reference device was often the desktop. In recent years, the “mobile first” approach has encouraged us to start with mobile Web or apps as a way to focus on optimizing key functionality and minimize “feature-itis.” Such services usually have overarching design guidelines spanning all platforms to ensure a degree of consistency. The aim is usually on making the different interfaces feel like a family, rather than on making the devices work together as a system. Read more…

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The magic design sauce: curiosity and serendipity

Khoi Vinh on "How They Got There," the cards interaction model, and designers as founders.

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I recently sat down with Khoi Vinh, vice president of user experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Vinh was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), design director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. Our conversation included a discussion of career paths; the much talked about new interaction model, cards; and advice for design entrepreneurs.

Curiosity serves designers well

Vinh and I discussed the ever-evolving role of designers. He recently self-published How They Got There, a book of interviews with interaction designers who describe their career paths and offer advice and insight. Vinh explained:

How They Got There is kind of like the book I wish I could have read when I was just starting out in my career. The central thesis is that very few careers are truly planned out, A to B, to C, to Z, and it’s usually a lot of stuff that just happens by circumstance or blind luck, or through someone who knows someone.

“As I became more and more aware of that in my career, I started to find those stories really interesting, really revealing, because they say so much about the character of people who achieve notoriety in their careers; the circumstances that led them to where they are can be fascinating. In a lot of instances, the things that get these people onto these paths are very, very minor events or minor coincidences. … There’s a serendipity, but I think, one thing that comes out when you read these stories is what serves these designers really well is curiosity, a willingness to be available to opportunities, so to speak. They go with the flow. They let one thing turn into another through their ability to acclimate themselves to various situations.

“What’s that old saying from Branch Rickey — “luck is the residue of design”? These careers are somewhat serendipitous, but they are really the result of folks who are very conscientious about making the most of whatever situation they had and working really hard and applying themselves, and looking at the world around them with great curiosity and being really willing to study what it takes to get to the next level.”

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