Taking UX to Eleven

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This post also appeared on interactions, where I sometimes write as well.

About a hundred years ago, I worked as a road manager. Often, when I tell folks this, they get all misty-eyed, somewhat dewy, and ask, “What was it like?” I think images of Scooter Herring run across their eyes, or strains of Jackson Browne’s “Rosie” waft melodically in an Ohrwurm kind of way.

The first time I worked as a road manager was after I’d met the Bill Blue Band when they played an in-studio live concert. I bonded with the band, from their incendiary guitarists to their rocking rhythms and gypsy attitudes. We would pile into an unreliable Ford Econoline van on top of bass cabinets and road cases as we played from Baltimore’s No Fish Today to Richmond’s Hard Times to Raleigh’s Pier to Atlanta’s Blind Willie’s and points in between.

Ten years later, I went on the road with blues guitarist Jimmy Thackery and his band the Assassins. While it was a higher-level band, the principles of the relationship between a road manager, the band, the venues, and the audiences remained the same.

Recently while working on a major project, I came up with this analogy: The UX team is the band, the client is the venue, and the users are the audience.

* The band’s job is to create the base experience. They write the songs, they perform the music, and they create a show.

* The venue’s job is to host an environment in which this experience can occur. They provide the space, the lights, the sound system (in most cases these days), the food, the booze, and the branding.

* The audience’s job is to pay their money to the venue so the band can create the basic, core elements of the experience. The goals of the audience include participating in a social event (as opposed to simply listening to the band on their stereo), getting out, getting drunk, whatever…but it is the experience of being there that exists only because a band comes together, performs the music, in a hall the venue provides.

In all of this continuum, a road manager (also as tour manager or personal manager, depending on the level and structure of the band) enables this experience to occur seamlessly:

* The road manager makes sure the band gets to where they need to be, that they have the skills, attitude, and equipment they need, and that they’re up to the task.

* Often, the road manager must ensure the band works well with the venue, guaranteeing the venue understands the needs of the band as well as the needs and expectations of the audience. David Lee Roth (yes, that David Lee Roth) detailed the story of Van Halen’s “no brown M&Ms” policy from their rider. Their road manager was responsible for overseeing this seemingly excessive bit of rock & roll self-indulgence; yet by ensuring the venue read the contract closely, the band could worry less about whether the power was sufficient or the stage safe and instead concentrate on creating an experience for its fans.

A road manager is a person who understands the needs and skills of the band, who understands the goals of the venue, but who ultimately focuses efforts on ensuring the audience turns into swarms of loyal fans. That’s why I love the movies Almost Famous and The Commitments; though ostensibly about the music, they show the importance of a manager on the road with a group.

By having a road manager, a band can concentrate on their craft, their art, their muse…and their performance. The road manager is at best a person who understands not just logistics but also politics, art, and experience.

What’s needed in the UX world is that UX road manager: An experienced yet perspicacious practitioner who enables experiences to occur, shepherding the UX team with a studied, experienced, and enthusiastic hand. I see this person as someone who’s done the craft of the UX band but who sees herself as wanting to orchestrate even more.

The title can change, evolve, and morph. User experience architect, UX strategist, chief UX evangelist, whatever…as long as it’s a passionate person who cares about the experience being the best it can be, with the milieu of band/venue/audience that it can be.

Somehow, someone needs to balance the needs of the UX team (who want to do a great job), the client (who wants to meet their business goals), and the user (who wants to get stuff done, accomplish something, or feel something). Where possible, having a UX road manager can make the difference… and truly make the band on stage.


Keep Repeating

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UX is not synonymous with UI!

Keep this in mind whenever you see an ad for “UX/UI.” That slash is utterly misleading. Instead, it should read, “UX with a focus on the UI design.” That’s an honest ad. Otherwise, it’s a wide net cast for whatever shows up.

Erik has written a great article on why UX and UI aren’t synonyms. Read it. Learn it. Live it.

Memories Are Made of This

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While driving north on I-95 the other day, I had three quarters in my right hand, in preparation of paying an upcoming toll. As I rounded the curve past the I-64 merge and dipped under the Belvidere Street bridge, an overpowering image hit me: I was twirling and rotating these quarters in the same way that my father used to, when he would approach the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike toll booth that used to be in that location.

Even though I was doing the Queeg-like metal manipulation, even though the toll system on I-95 is long gone (and yet might soon return, thanks to Gov. McDonnell), it all came back to me…that sense of slowing down, waiting for the toll booth, the toss of the quarters, the hope that they didn’t spin out of the receptacle, and the acceleration to regain speed.

Something as simple as three quarters can take me back 40 years.

Destroying the Box: Experience Design Inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright

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I’ve been interested in Frank Lloyd Wright ever since seeing the Oak Park houses he designed at the turn of the last century. I’ve visited several sites since then, I’ve watched the Ken Burns documentary, and I’ve read a bunch of books by & about him. When I first visited his winter home Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ, I saw this sign…and it struck me like a proverbial thunderbolt:

image of a Lao Tse quotation

“The reality of the building does not consist in the roof and walls but in the space within to be lived in.” _Laotse
That’s what I do as an experience architect. Design isn’t the boxes and arrows and lines and shadings that we decide on, but it’s the experience that someone has with the interaciton on that site. I began to pull threads  to see what other elements of inspiration Wright held for those of us in the UX field.
So, with that in mind, here’s my proposal for a talk at the 2012 IA Summit, a talk I won’t be giving because, sadly, this proposal was rejected. Lemme know what you think:
“When we said we wanted a house at Bear Creek,” client Lillian Kaufmann said to Frank Lloyd Wright, “we didn’t imagine you would build it ON the creek!” To which Wright replied, “In time you’d grow tired of the sight of creek…but you’ll never grow tired of the sound.”
And he was right. Fallingwater stands as the most recognized house in architecture. yet it’s not just a landmark…it was a home. The Kaufmanns loved it. Similarly, owners of other Wright-designed buildings may have struggled with the architect, the implementation may have had flaws, the builders and other constructors may have gone behind Wright’s back to fix perceived design flaws…but they all loved the buildings. The architect’s vision remains inspiration to this day.
This presentation looks at three Wright landmarks—Fallingwater in Ohiopyle, the Pope-Leighy house in Alexandria, and Taliesin West in Phoenix—and the experience architecture inspiration they hold for experience designers. I also believe that, through Wright’s examples, we can learn elements that take our approaches to experience architecture to newly useful and inspiring levels for our clients and the users of our work.
During this presentation, we’ll take a look at pictures and principles from these three sites. We will explore analogs to our practice through these
  • Context: How does the site selection integrate with user needs and desires?
  • Clients: What do Wright’s relationships with his clients teach us? Where did he innovate, and where did he fail?
  • Connection: How does the architect connect the lives of the clients with the results of the design? Expect an interactive, question-and-answer format. And lots of pictures.
  • Construction: What does the architect need to know about building stuff? We’ll look at how Wright demanded multitalented people in his architecture school, and how he had them engage in building stuff…including their own residences.

All Quiet on the Tennessee

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All quiet along the Tennessee…at least from this slab of limestone in Point Park, where I stand.

Standing here at the tip of Lookout Mountain, fifteen hundred feet above the Chattanooga Valley floor, I can see the river winding between plateaus and ridges. To a hazy northeast stand two cooling towers of a nuclear plant, standing sentinel over the unsuspecting river. Directly below my craggy perch, the river makes an almost complete reversal on itself, creating an effect from here that the Indians called “Moccasin Bend.” to my right,Missionary Ridge slices the city in two, its residentially green slopes contrasting with the blue-and-white industrialness on both sides of the ridge.

Almost 150 years ago, my ancestors also watched from this rock, from this mountain that now serves as their memorial. In 1863, Confederate soldiers watched and waited on a late November morning as Union troops moved in from the west.

Even though the modern city of Chattanooga has occupied the valley, even though interstate highways criss-cross the panorama, even though the haze obscuring the distant mountains comes not from battles or campfires but from automobile exhaust, I can almost visualize what it must have looked like…”almost,” since the Civil War exists only in my mind.
Behind me, the cannon in Point Park (a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield park system) rest silently, pointing out at the calm valley. As North Georgia guitarist Norman Blake eulogized,

And the cast-iron markers they stand there,

Guarding the battleground with care

Cannons rest all in a row

Prepared to meet some ghostly foe

Indeed. There are ghosts here…yet not only those from the battle. They are those of my childhood, both my friends and the soldiers we became in our wistful innocence.

Because I grew up not far from the park, my friends and I frequented the park, especially in the summers. We developed almost a routine, cemented with the building blocks of inherited Civil War interest and the mortar of sunshine and summer vacation.

We would bounce through the castellated twin-towered park entrance built in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Civilian Conservation Corps. We sat around with the rangers stationed in the visitor’s reception booth. I spent so much time with them that they trusted me to watch the entrance while they walked across the street for coffee. It was also thrilling when a ranger would allow me to climb the steps inside the tower to haul the U.S. flag down at the end of the day.

After we’d visit with the ranger, we would wander through the park. First we’d go up to the twin Parrott cannons, guns that during their day could hurl a ten-pound projectile more than a mile away. To us, the black-painted barrels resting on cast-iron replica carriages roared and bucked still. Sweat streamed down the cannoneers’ faces as they swabbed the bore, loaded, and tensely waited for the commands: “Exploding fuse, eight hundred yards! Ready, number three! Guns one and four, FIRE!” We covered our ears at the imagined roar and sighted down the barrels with a gunnery sergeant’s intensity.
Soon we would trot down the paved path that wound along a precipice. To our left, across the close-cropped lawn, rose the New York Peace Monument. This fifty-foot tall column, topped with bronze figures of a Confederate and a Union Soldier shaking hands, was dedicated in 1902 by veterans of the battle. To us, this wonderful granite structure became not a monument commemorating the valor of the dead and the commitment to peace but a place to fight imaginary skirmishes around.

We neared the next pair of Napoleon smoothbore cannons. We stood dangerously close to a hundred-foot drop. This slab of limestone  became my favorite perch, a place I returned to and continue to visit so often that it is as associated with me as a gravestone is to the person underneath it.
We would climb all over this rock, underneath it where cul-de-sacs and cubby-holes made us feel like Indian Joes. Tourists standing by the cannon would gawk and point at us and marvel at our sure-footed courage. We would ignore them and sometimes goad these interlopers on as we clambered precariously on cliffs.
From this rock we would descend by trails that wound through limestone outcroppings, sandstone slabs rising thirty feet above our heads, overhanging maple and pine trees sometimes shutting out the summer sun, and end up at the Ochs Museum.

This eighty-year-old locally quarried stone museum housed relics and historical displays, along with bronze arrows marking significant items from the Chattanooga campaign: Signal Point, Moccasin Bend, Cameron Hill, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. Named for Chattanooga Times founder and New York Times savior Adolph S. Ochs, the museum also had an easy-to-access flat roof that we would leap to from an overhanging rock.
We felt we owned this place, its terrace looking out over the valley. We stood along with tourists looking out toward the Cumberland Plateau, gazing with the eyes of soldiers who’d stood on this promontory so long ago. We saw the war as a grand lost cause. We were the heroes. We were the ones who got away.

Once, a friend and I explored trails that had been closed for twenty years or more, on account of the danger that climbing around some poorly maintained mountain trails can have. We climbed over rocks, laurel bushes, and No Trespassing signs. Finally, we came to a gentle slope, where the carpet of leaves cushioned our footfalls. I couldn’t hear the city sounds below nor the tourists’ cackles above. instead, I heard wagons creaking, rifles cracking, cannons booming, and men screaming.

And there, on the right, was a faded red-and-gray cast iron marker. Forgotten since this trail had been closed, the sign simply read, “Last line of Walthall’s Brigade.”

Nothing else.

No explanation of who Walthall was, why this was a “last line,” or whether they advanced or retreated or surrendered from this spot.
It didn’t matter to me. For the first time since I had read The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War for Boys, instead of glorious flags flying, I saw the wounded and the wrecked remnants of some desperate bunch of men, of people, fighting without hope in the confused woods.

I never explored those woods again.

Pecha Kucha with Real Architects!

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Tonight in Richmond at 6:00 I’ll be talking about Frank Lloyd Wright and some experience design inspiration I’ve gotten from him over the years. Some of you may have seen a version of my Destroying the Box talk, most recently at RUX’s October meeting. It’s my first pecha kucha (nervous and excited), and it’s a topic I really love.

I’m in great company. Here’s the lineup:

Margaret Hancock :: Design Education
Sarah Carrier Stough :: Bonstra | Haresign’s Hazel River Cabin
Joe Sokohl :: Destroy the Box (that’s me!)
Robert Reis :: HEWV’s James Madison University Forbes Center
R. Tyler King :: The There/Here project
Greg Rutledge :: HEWV’s Freemason Baptist Church Renovation + Addition
Amrit Singh + Thom White :: The ELA “What Do You See?” project
Jason Dufilho :: 3north’s ARCenter

Feel free to join us at the Camel on Broad Street near VCU (across from Lowe’s). Doors at 6, light refreshment & such, then lightning talks till 7:30.

Another Man Done Gone

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I think about Pascal’s premise that “le meilleur est l’enemie de le bon.” and I think about the premise in Don Norman’s “The Invisible Computer,” that, in effect, “good enough is good enough.”

Today, I’m thinking that Steve Jobs showed us that the world doesn’t have to be that way.

Certainly, in the days to come, eloquence far surpassing my shrill scribbles will encapsulate his legacy and genius. Yet tonight, as I sit in this yuppie steakhouse in Stamford, CT, and drink perhaps one too many bourbons (for in my family’s world view, tragic deaths require whiskey), I relish the “insanely great” inspiration he’s given us…and me. Where Nils Lofgren called Keith Richard his “main inspirer” in his song “Keith Don’t Go,” I see Jobs as that sage to me.

Requiescat in pace, Steve.

Does It Still Hold Up?

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It’s funny sometimes, looking back at stuff you used to think. Sometimes, we come across old diaries or letters or scribbles in notebooks.

Now, we have Internet tracks.

Recently I found a draft of an article I wrote while I was the Director of UX for Keane. Way back in 2008, “Web 2.0″ was the buzzword flav of the day.

Without any further ado…here’s the article on Web 2.0 that I wrote for Computer Technology Review.

A Chapter from a Never-written Book

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I’ve written three book proposals.

I’ve never written a book.

In one case, though, I actually wrote a sample chapter. It was for a book I called, The Accidental Technical Writer: Delivering Documentation That People Will Actually Use. The idea was to meld my 8 years of technical writing experience with my 8 years of interface/interaction design, information architecture, user research…you know, the other parts of user experience.

I thought that too many people have to deliver procedural documentation (the “how to” stuff, often called “user doc” or “the user manual” or such), systems documentation (how does the system work), or other written deliverables…and they don’t really want to do so. Too, I thought it would be a good book for those product managers riffing through Word just before product launch who need to (and want to) improve the utility and usefulness of the documentation users receive.

But it was not meant to be.

So, for your reading pleasure, I provide the “lost” chapter, intended as the introductory chapter to the book.

So you have to deliver documentation

Writing manuals is a very special and privileged task in a computer company, for in the process of writing them you are forced to go over every detail of the hardware and software the company sells in an attempt to make it understandable and usable to our extremely broad customer base. In the process a conscientious writer will discover nearly every good and bad feature of the system, and can provide valuable feedback to the designers and implementors.

Jef Raskin, “”The Genesis and History of the Macintosh Project,” typed ms., 16 February 1981; annotations by Raskin dated 5 November 1993.

Where’s the technical writing staff? Shouldn’t they be doing the documentation? Wait a minute…we don’t have any technical writers! But the project plans calls for an administrator’s guide and a reference guide and online help…and your manager just sent you an email, tagging you with the task. Now what do you do?

Many developers look on documentation as a bane to their existence. Funny, though how many times developers decry the lack of documentation. Ever had to maintain an application someone else wrote? If there’s no API reference or data type definition document or Javadocs, often it’s virtually impossible to do your work.

If you have to simply read the code, you end up taking longer just to understand what the heck is going on with the application. The longer you take in learning about the approach, the intent, and the design, the longer it takes you to get up to speed.

Documentation also has an impact on collaboration. Imagine a distributed team, where the software designers work in Cleveland, the developers work in Budapest, and the marketing staff is in Berlin. So the better the communication is, the better all these groups can collaborate. Oh, and the users of the product are in Kansas City, Guyaquil, and Mumbai.

Benefits of excellence in documentation

Sure, you could simply take an earlier version of documentation, slap the current product’s version number on it, and deliver it. For that matter, you could take the local phone book, change the covers, and call it your administrator’s guide, for all the good it will do. Yet someone, somewhere suffers.

Instead, working toward better documentation achieves strong benefits. Here’s why you need to think about better documentation.

  • Good documentation adds value to the product as well as serves as a marketing tool for the company.
  • Clear, concise, and accurate information helps the user perform the task; when this occurs, your readers see that you care about them.
  • Staff and management work within preset standards, eliminating the frustration of surprises and last-minute requirements.
  • Clear, appropriate documentation acts as an added sales tool that helps differentiate your products from the competition.
  • Fewer support calls free up help desk staff to answer more complex, time-consuming calls.
It’s not literature, but it is important

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. — Gene Fowler

Writing is difficult. Anyone who’s ever had to deliver a report or a white paper or an instruction manual knows that. Just as buying Visual Studio doesn’t make you a developer, buying a copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t make you a writer. Too, simply speaking a language doesn’t mean you can communicate concepts in text well.

At the same time, following some key guidelines helps improve documentation immensely. This book provides these key guidelines.

Using this book won’t make you a great novelist nor a professional, fulltime technical writer. What this book does do is help you overcome writer’s block, organize your approach to documentation, and reduce some of the pain of writing. Too, by focusing on delivering documents people will really use, you can improve your product’s quality, acceptance, and success.

On My Way to Midwest UX

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Sitting in a Hampton Inn in Elkins, WV, winding down from 215 miles on Red Molly. In some ways, it’s not that far. I’ve done many more miles in one day before. On the other hand, I left at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Moto Guzzi Norge named Red Molly in front of Foamhenge

Red Molly at Foamhenge (not today)

I wanted to get at least halfway, due to the weather forecast of rain, rain, and more rain for Friday. yes, I could drive eight hours in the rain on my motorcycle…but I’d rather not. it’s an experience, yes…but as my father said about Army training, “you don’t need to train to be miserable.”

I’m excited to be wending my way through West Virginia on to Columbus, Ohio, and Midwest UX. I mean, wow! Look at those speakers, willya?! Jared Spool? Off the hook. Dan Willis? Crazy man! Jesse James Garrett? The real UX Man in Black! Jay Morgan? The finest hair in UX! And on and on.

It’s like my favorite UXers combine with folks I’ve never met to create a new and exciting event…in the Midwest!

That’s why my company’s tag line is UX for the Rest of Us: There’s a lot of UX design being done in places that aren’t New York or Boston or DC or Chicago or Austin or Palo Alto or Seattle or Berlin or London or Utrecht. This conference purports to be the new-kid-on-the-UX-block-that’s-kicking-ass-and-taking-persona-names.

My little show? “Destroying the Box: Experience Design Inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright.” Taking a cue from Jen Matson, here’s the description from the program:

“When we said we wanted a house at Bear Creek,” client Lillian Kaufmann said to Frank Lloyd Wright, “we didn’t imagine you would build it ON the creek!”

To which Wright replied, “In time you’d grow tired of the sight of creek…but you’ll never grow tired of the sound.”

And he was right. Fallingwater stands as the most recognized house in architecture. yet it’s not just a landmark…it was a home. The Kaufmanns’ loved it.

Similarly, owners of other Wright-designed buildings may have struggled with the architect, the implementation may have had flaws, the builders and other constructors may have gone behind Wright’s back to fix perceived design flaws… but they all loved the buildings. The architect’s vision remains inspiration to this day.

This presentation looks at three Wright landmarks— Fallingwater in Ohiopyle, the Pope-Leighy house in Alexandria, and Taliesin West in Phoenix— and the experience architecture inspiration they hold for experience designers.

I also believe that, through Wright’s examples, we can learn elements that take our approaches to experience architecture to newly useful and inspiring levels for our clients and the users of our work.

During this presentation, we’ll take a look at pictures and principles from these three sites. We will explore analogs to our practice through these elements:

* Context: How does the site selection integrate with user needs and desires?
* Clients: What do Wright’s relationships with his clients teach us? Where did he innovate, and where did he fail?
* Connection: How does the architect connect the lives of the clients with the results of the design? Expect an interactive, question-and-answer format. And lots of pictures.

So, I’m also honored to be in Ohio’s capital city…just down the road from the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington. I’m just sayin’.

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