Design without touching the surface

I am prepar­ing two class­es at the moment. One is an intro­duc­tion to user expe­ri­ence design, the oth­er to user inter­face design. I did not come up with this divi­sion, it was part of the assign­ment. I thought it was odd at first. I wasn’t sure where one dis­ci­pline ends and the oth­er begins. I still am not sure. But I made a prag­mat­ic deci­sion to have the UX class focus on the high lev­el process of design­ing (soft­ware) prod­ucts, and the UI class focus on the visu­al aspects of a product’s inter­face. The UI class deals with a product’s sur­face, form, and to some extent also its behav­iour, but on a micro lev­el. Where­as the UX class focus­es on behav­iour on the macro lev­el. Sim­ply speaking—the UX class is about behav­iour across screens, the UI class is about behav­iour with­in screens.

The solu­tion is work­able. But I am still not entire­ly com­fort­able with it. I am not com­fort­able with the idea of being able to prac­tice UX with­out ‘touch­ing the sur­face’, so to speak. And it seems my two class­es are advo­cat­ing this. Also, I am pret­ty sure this is every­day real­i­ty for many UX prac­ti­tion­ers. Notice I say “prac­ti­tion­er”, because I am not sure ‘design­er’ is the right term in these cas­es. To be hon­est I do not think you can prac­tice design with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of some sort. (See Bill Buxton’s ‘Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences’ for an expand­ed argu­ment on why this is.) And when it comes to design­ing soft­ware prod­ucts this means touch­ing the sur­face, the form.

Again, the real­i­ty is, ‘UX design­er’ and ‘UI design­er’ are com­mon terms now. Cer­tain­ly here in Sin­ga­pore peo­ple know they need both to make good prod­ucts. Some prac­ti­tion­ers say they do both, oth­ers one or the oth­er. The lat­ter appears to be the most com­mon and expect­ed case. (By the way, in Sin­ga­pore no-one I’ve met talks about inter­ac­tion design.)

My con­cern is that by encour­ag­ing the prac­tice of doing UX design with­out touch­ing the sur­face of a prod­uct, we get shit­ty designs. In a process where UX and UI are seen as sep­a­rate things the risk is one comes before the oth­er. The UX design­er draws the wire­frames, the UI design­er gets to turn them into pret­ty pic­tures, with no back-and-forth between the two. An iter­a­tive process can mit­i­gate some of the dam­age such an arti­fi­cial divi­sion of labour pro­duces, but I think we still start out on the wrong foot. I think a bet­ter prac­tice might entail includ­ing visu­al con­sid­er­a­tions from the very begin­ning of the design process (as we are sketch­ing).

Two things I came across as I was prepar­ing these class­es are some­how in sup­port of this idea. Both result­ed from a call I did for resources on user inter­face design. I asked for books about visu­al aspects, but I got a lot more.

  1. In ‘Mag­ic Ink’ Bret Vic­tor writes about how the design of infor­ma­tion soft­ware is huge­ly indebt­ed to graph­ic design and more specif­i­cal­ly infor­ma­tion design in the tra­di­tion of Tufte. (He also men­tions indus­tri­al design as an equal­ly big prog­en­i­tor of inter­ac­tion design, but for soft­ware that is main­ly about manip­u­la­tion, not infor­ma­tion.) The arti­cle is big, but the start of it is actu­al­ly a pret­ty good if unortho­dox gen­er­al intro­duc­tion to inter­ac­tion design. For soft­ware that is about learn­ing through look­ing at infor­ma­tion Vic­tor says inter­ac­tion should be a last resort. So that leaves us with a task that is 80% if not more visu­al design. Touch­ing the sur­face. Which makes me think you might as well get to it as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and start sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing aimed not just at struc­ture and behav­iour but also form. (Hat tip to Pieter Diepen­maat for this one.)

  2. In ‘Jump­ing to the End’ Matt Jones ram­bles enter­tain­ing­ly about design fic­tion. He argues for pay­ing atten­tion to details and that a lot of the design he prac­tices is about ‘sig­na­ture moments’ aka micro-inter­ac­tions. So yeah, again, I can’t imag­ine design­ing these effec­tive­ly with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of the sort that includes the visu­al. And in fact Matt men­tions this more or less at one point, when he talks about the fact that his team’s deliv­er­ables at Google are almost all visu­al. They are high fideli­ty mock­ups, ani­ma­tions, videos, and so on. These then become the start­ing points for fur­ther devel­op­ment. (Hat tip to Alexan­der Zeh for this one.)

In sum­ma­ry, I think dis­tin­guish­ing UX design from UI design is non­sense. Because you can­not prac­tice design with­out sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing. And you can­not sketch and pro­to­type a soft­ware prod­uct with­out touch­ing its sur­face. In stead of tak­ing visu­al design for grant­ed, or talk­ing about it like it is some innate tal­ent, some kind of mag­i­cal skill some peo­ple are born with and oth­ers aren’t, user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers should con­sid­er being less enam­oured with acquir­ing more skills from busi­ness, mar­ket­ing and engi­neer­ing and in stead prac­tice at the skills that define the fields user expe­ri­ence design is indebt­ed to the most: graph­ic design and indus­tri­al design. In oth­er words, you can’t do user expe­ri­ence design with­out touch­ing the sur­face.

Week 173

At the stu­dio, cof­fee brew­ing in the french press, El Guin­cho on the stereo. Last week I felt over­whelmed, this week I just feel aller­gic. Lit­er­al­ly. I have a head full of anti­his­t­a­mines, hope they kick in soon.

One thing I decid­ed to do about the over­whelm­ing bit is block out more time in my cal­en­dar for work. Not say­ing how much, but I already had some time blocked for a while now, and I have dou­bled that. It just won’t do to have hard­ly any time to do actu­al design. I guess I’ll just need to to talk to few­er peo­ple. If you do not push back, it is easy to lose all your time to meet-ups. Peo­ple are reck­less in the ease with which they impose on other’s time. Myself includ­ed.1

We played a card game last night at the stu­dio. An insight I’ve had after review­ing the past peri­od with my interns. To become bet­ter design­ers, we need to make a lot of games, this is true.2 But it also helps to play games, many games, of any kind. So we’ll set apart an hour or so each week and we’ll play a game that some­one brings in. I kicked it off with Domin­ion, which is inter­est­ing for the way it has built upon trad­ing-card-game deck-build­ing mechan­ics, like Mag­ic the Gath­er­ing. In stead of it being some­thing that hap­pens before a game it takes place in par­al­lel to the game.

What else is of note? Ah yes. I attend­ed Design by Fire 2010 on Wednes­day. It is still the best con­fer­ence on inter­ac­tion design in the Nether­lands. And I real­ly appre­ci­ate the fact that the orga­niz­ers con­tin­ue to take risks with who they put on stage. Too often do I feel like being part or at least spec­ta­tor of some clique at events, with all speak­ers know­ing each oth­er and com­ing from more or less the same “school of thought”. Not so with Design by Fire. High­lights includ­ed David McCan­d­less, Andrei Herasim­chuk, m’colleague Ianus and of course Bill Bux­ton.

The lat­ter also remind­ed me of some use­ful frames of thought for next Tues­day, when I will need to spend around half an hour talk­ing about the future of games, from a design per­spec­tive, at an invi­ta­tion-only think-tank like ses­sion orga­nized by STT.3 The orga­niz­ers asked me to set an ambi­tion time frame, but as you may know I have a very hard time imag­in­ing any future beyond say, the next year or two. (And some­times I also have trou­ble being hope­ful about it.) But as Mr. Bux­ton points out, ideas need a ges­ta­tion peri­od of around 20 years before they are ready for prime­time, so I am plan­ning to look back some ten years, see what occu­pied the games world back then, and use that as a jump­ing off point for what­ev­er I’ll be talk­ing about. Let’s get start­ed on that now.

  1. Mule Design had an inter­est­ing post on this. Part of the prob­lem is peo­ple, but part also soft­ware, accord­ing to them. Imag­ine a cal­en­dar you sub­tract time from in stead of add to. []
  2. Tom wrote a won­der­ful post on games lit­er­a­cy. []
  3. The Nether­lands Study Cen­tre for Tech­nol­o­gy Trends. []

Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

Play is the high­est form of research.”

—Albert Ein­stein1

That’s what I always say when I’m play­ing games, too.

I real­ly liked Bill Bux­ton’s book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences. I like it because Bux­ton defends design as a legit­i­mate pro­fes­sion sep­a­rate from oth­er disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time show­ing that design­ers (no mat­ter how bril­liant) can only suc­ceed in the right ecosys­tem. I also like the fact that he iden­ti­fies sketch­ing (in its many forms) as a defin­ing activ­i­ty of the design pro­fes­sion. The many exam­ples he shows are very inspir­ing.

One in par­tic­u­lar stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klink­er done in 2004 at the RCA in Lon­don. The image above is tak­en from the video they cre­at­ed to illus­trate their con­cept. It’s about cars auto-mag­i­cal­ly dri­ving along tra­jec­to­ries that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s com­pan­ion web­site. It’s a very good exam­ple of visu­al­iz­ing an inter­ac­tive prod­uct in a very com­pelling way with­out actu­al­ly build­ing it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illus­trate how the con­cept works, it also gives you a sense of what the expe­ri­ence of using it would be like. As Bux­ton writes:3

You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the expe­ri­ence of fun that they help fos­ter. And that is what this video real­ly shows. That, and the pow­er of video to go beyond sim­ply doc­u­ment­ing a con­cept to com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing about expe­ri­ence in a very vis­cer­al way.”

Not only does it com­mu­ni­cate the fun you would have play­ing with it, I think this way of sketch­ing actu­al­ly helped the design­ers get a sense them­selves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actu­al­ly play­ing, being sur­prised by unex­pect­ed out­comes, etc.

The role of play in design is dis­cussed by Bux­ton as well, although he admits he need­ed to be prompt­ed by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toron­to writes in an email to Bux­ton:4

With­out play imag­i­na­tion dies.”

Chal­lenges to imag­i­na­tion are the keys to cre­ativ­i­ty. The skill of retriev­ing imag­i­na­tion resides in the mas­tery of play. The ecol­o­gy of play is the ecol­o­gy of the pos­si­ble. Pos­si­bil­i­ty incu­bates cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Which Bux­ton rephras­es in one of his own per­son­al mantras:5

These things are far too impor­tant to take seri­ous­ly.”

All of which has made me real­ize that if I’m not hav­ing some sort of fun while design­ing, I’m doing some­thing wrong. It might be worth con­sid­er­ing switch­ing from one sketch­ing tech­nique to anoth­er. It might help me get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the prob­lem, and yield new pos­si­ble solu­tions. Buxton’s book is a trea­sure trove of sketch­ing tech­niques. There is no excuse for being bored while design­ing any­more.

  1. Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not get­ting a com­mis­sion to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []