Thursday, November 25, 2004

Andrew's thoughts on Design Engaged

Since he organized it, I think Andrew's thoughts on Design Engaged deserve attention.

How did I convince those people to send me money and fly to an exotic meeting room? Anything I describe below really only contributed one twenty-fourth of the overall goodness of the weekend.

Andrew, you deserve a big thumbs up for organizing this conference!

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The end of usability culture?

Over at Digital-Web, Dirk Knemeyer wrote two articles under the title "The End of Usability Culture" (1 and 2) and received quite some attention.

I have some issues with his use of the word design and how designers will be the people that take control away from usability experts.

I almost agree when Dirk says "On both a disciplinary level and within our project teams, we need big thinkers who lead the exploration of this exciting time and medium." But it is the "big thinkers" part (Dirk also uses "visionary") where I think he is wrong.
Dirk seems to equate design with innovation. In the first article he says:
"Design [..] is a sensibility that is often visionary and is about seeing beyond the surface."
In the second he poses that:
"we need to be led by the people who both understand Web design and are able to innovate in the Web space."
But why this focus on making something different? What's wrong with simply making a difference? Because, in my opinion, that is what design is all about: specifying something that fulfills a purpose and thereby making a difference. I do not think that it must be the creatives, the innovaters-for-the-sake-of-it, that should take control. So, who should?

Dirk and I agree that a design project needs a design champion; someone who defends the solution's central concepts and manages those aspects of the project that deal with transforming these concepts into an implementation. We need people with a wide-angle view of the project.
Dirk seems to call this person a Web Designer who, according to the second article, should have a focus on understanding web technologies, although his first article seemed to lean towards a preference to visual design. At my former company we called this person the Concept Designer which in my opinion is more specific. From my article on the T-model you can guess that I would call them User Experience designers.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Design Engaged was great

Last weekend's Design Engaged was a marvellous experience. Andrew Otwell managed to gather a group of extremely smart people (thank you Andrew!), and most of the time I felt I was only on the border of their discussions and trains of thought. Next time I'm going to be prepared...
standard RUP diagram at Design Engaged, picture by Timo Arnall

Some people presented purely from memory, others using only images to channel our thought, most others used slides the old-fashioned way.

My presentation, "This StUX! Introducing User Experience deliverables to a Software Company", has been green-lighted for wider publication with only minor changes.
I presented StUX, our in-house developed add-on to the Rational Unified Process, explained why we need it, what it's made off (the deliverables diagram and descriptions of our deliverables), how we promote it, and how it is impacting our organization.

I hope to be able to talk some more about this subject at an upcoming SIGCHI.NL activity and, if my fellow reviewers see the benefit, at the next IA Summit.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Off to Design Engaged, presenting STUX

Tomorrow and the weekend I'll be amongst Designers, attending and speaking at Design Engaged. Design Engaged will be a chance for designers to gather to discuss current challenges and opportunities. What do new technologies like pervasive computing offer designers? What obstacles do you find in coming up with innovative ideas, and how do you collaborate with others to make those ideas happen? What do fields like architecture or software development have to offer design, and vice versa? I'll be talking about the "how do you collaborate with others to make those ideas happen" part.

I will present STUX, our in-house developed design methodology (not to be mistaken for STUX, the free Linux distribution), there for the first time. Wonder if they will pick it up...

Here's a low-res diagram of all the deliverables in STUX, to give you an idea of how we present it internally to our colleagues:

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Original T-model beermat

Eric Reiss was kind enough to send me the original beermat sketch of the T-model.
scan of beermat with T-model sketch
Thanks Eric!

Monday, November 08, 2004

AIfIA should guard the inner corners of the T

Okay, now that I have my T-model of IA and UX out, I can dig into what Eric and I were really talking about: Where AIfIA fits in all this.

AIfIA states on its website that it aims to reach the following groups:

  • Designers and technologists who practice information architecture
  • Colleagues in the design and technology fields
  • Businesses, government, and organizations that need information architecture
  • Media

In my opinion, that means AIfIA should guard the "inner corners" of the T-model.
Highlighting the inner corners of the T-model
First of all, it is in those corners where the distinction between IA and, let's say, interaction design or usability is made; on the vertical axis between the IA column and the columns of other fields. There it is all about differentiation.

Second, it's where unification must occor. On the horizontal axis, AIfIA should stress that there is indeed an overlap between what some IA's do and what some interaction designers and usability experts do. We are all part of the UX umbrella.

Let's see if AIfIA is guarding the corners:

  1. Q: Is there a razor-sharp definition of IA on the website?
    A: No, the current definition is inherently ambiguous on purpose.

    I think this should change. How? By accepting a better definition, for example this one, by Tony Byrne:
    Information Architecture (IA) is commonly understood to be the art and science of structuring, organizing, and labeling information so that content owners can better manage it and users can find what they're looking for more effectively. IA can be bottom-up (i.e. analyzing and labeling content chunks) or top-down (i.e developing standardized categorization schemes or taxonomies).

    (taken from his article Enterprise Information Architecture: Don’t Do ECM Without It)

  2. Q: Is there active participation in umbrella discussions?
    A: Yes, AIfIA was present at the very first meeting of this kind.

    Let's hope the newly elected board keeps this "tradition" up, and even initiates new meetings and discussions. It is part of their border-patrol duty!

Saturday, November 06, 2004

T-model: Big IA is now UX

Do you remember Peter Morville's article Big Architect, Little Architect? In it he describes the Big Information Architect as "an orchestra conductor or film director, conceiving a vision and moving the team forward", a quote from Gayle Curtis. This would be a person at the "other end of the spectrum" from the little information architect who "may focus solely on bottom-up tasks such as the definition of metadata fields and controlled vocabularies".

In my opinion, it is time we re-label the field of Big IA into User Experience.

In discussing the future of AIfIA with AIfIA Board member Eric Reiss over dinner last week, I started sketching a model of my field, as seen from the perspective of an Information Architect.

The model showed a big "T", with the vertical line representing the field of IA with varying degrees of depth, while the horizontal line represented the width of related fields around us. We decided to call it the T-model.
T-model basic

The depth of IA ranges from shallow subjects that have clear overlap with the other fields to deep subjects that other fields hardly touch upon. Shallow subjects are navigation, labeling, and content that overlap with interaction design, marketing and copywriting for example. Deep subjects would be search, metadata, and controlled vocabularies. Peter Morville's little IA's live here, and each would have his own strengths.
T-model showing IA subjecs and related fields

Related fields, placed in the horizontal line of the T-model, have interests that overlap with our shallow subjects. Examples are interaction design, usability, information design, visual design, accessibility, copywriting, business modeling, markting and computer science. Big IA's know a little bit of all these fields to allow them to play the role of conductor.

Now, what if we look at this model from the perspective of, say, an Interaction Designer (IxD)? I am sure the subscribers to the IxD mailinglist have little IxD's and Big IxD's amongst them. They have their own T-model, with the vertical line standing next to "our" vertical line, but their horizontal line overlaps with ours! And the same is true for usability specialists, copywriters, information designers, etc.
T-model with IA and IxD

Now, as far as I can see, the horizontal overlap is the place where User Experience (UX) practitioners operate. They are likely to have a background in one of the fields (their private vertical line) but in their work they focus on the horizontal line, orchestrating specialists who operate in their vertical.
Big IA is now UX

Why would Information Architects be the ones to claim the "Big" label, effectively placing the related fields below IA instead of at its side. Do we posses a special skill that practitioners in the other fields don't? What is that skill? Is it related to one of the deep subjects or one of the shallow subjects? I cannot tell and I think it is wrong.

I am ready to give up the title Big IA in favour of User Experience practitioner, are you?

Update: the model has been expanded with an extra layer! See Shoulder IA: t-model extended with business layer (March 9, 2005)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Great IA Cocktail Hour!

Wow! Yesterday we had another Amsterdam IA Cocktail Hour and I am very, very happy with the outcome.

We had Peter Morville attend until he had to leave for the User Experience 2004 speaker dinner. He was clearly the center of attention for the first hour. Then Eric Reiss really livened up the evening and ended up having dinner with the nine die-hards until midnight.

It was good to see the the visiting UX2004 conference attendees mix with the usual suspects as well as the people that had promised to show up some time and choose yesterday to do that. I really enjoyed just walking around from group to group and hear them,, basically. I was glowing!

ProjectKnow - alcohol rehabilitation
-- advertisement --
I again received some requests to make the Cocktail Hours more formal, and even got an offer to make a suitable space available (thank you Elma!). Since it always has been my intention to mix educational aspects with socializing and networking, I am going to try and arrange this. Soon we'll have another IA Cocktail Hour-with-a-projector. My only request will be that there needs to be a case of beer in a corner somewhere :-)

P.S.: Eric also made an announcement that I am very proud of, but I can't tell anything about it yet. Stay tuned...