A criminal past

May 1, 2014

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of my next post becomes clear.

Get off the bandwagon and push

March 5, 2014

I loathe the term ‘UX’. It reeks of modish but shallow industry acronyms that come and go with changes in the wind. It devalues what user experience research and design represents, reducing it to a buzzword that is suddenly everywhere and which doesn’t even begin to communicate the value that, as with all design, it can deliver to businesses and organisations.

This was brought to my mind again during two enjoyable conversations in the past week with individuals just beginning their career in user experience design; one a recent graduate, the other a highly accomplished design professional making a shift to a new UX position.

Both admitted to wondering, as recently as a couple of years ago, what exactly UX had to offer – along the lines of “Is this not just…y’know, design?!” Having made the transition not too many years further back down the road I knew exactly what they meant.

I recall clearly the sense of indignation I used to feel at what user-centred design claimed to deliver – design fit for purpose for specific end users (forgive the over-simplification). “I do all that already” I thought, falling into that most narcissistic of designer traps – entertaining the thought that, by simply being a designer I was already doing everything right. Painful to think back to it now.

I can only imagine it must be galling for some UX veterans to watch as the discipline that they pioneered gains popular adoption, and in the process drawing to it the mainstream of the design world who now view ‘UX’ as some kind of new rock n’roll. After all, many will have been voices in the wilderness for years, while the rest of the design world mocked the overly considered approach that user-centred design demands. As it happens, user experience design now has a seat at the table, but we’re in esteemed company as just one of many diverse design disciplines.

Every industry will have its leaders and those who follow after; and both of these groups have particular responsibilities. The former must observe – and encourage – the expansion and diversification of the field which they helped to create with grace, and allow the new arrivals to help shape the future of this field.

The latter, though, have a greater responsibility. As commercial demand for the outputs and insights of user-centred design grows, so too does the imperative to ensure that UX practice truly evolves and flourishes. To put it another way, if UX represents a bandwagon of any kind, then the bandwagon cannot be allowed to slow down because we’re all clinging on just for the ride.

Common to both old and new practitioners is the need for humility. I’ve always loved this blog post from David Gillis; it articulates thoughts that I’m not sure I’ve read before or since.

The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

And, I would add to that sentiment, a willingness to contribute once we have learned from our experience.

We work with timeless principles; however the way in which we research, document and execute our work must keep evolving; no industry rests on its laurels. This is not the sole responsibility of those who made it into an industry at all. It is a joint responsibility with everyone who lays claim to the moniker of ‘UX’. Pioneers and Latecomers (and I will  include myself in the latter category), need to add to the toolkit – work out new deliverables, develop new insights and engender new thinking.

Anyone in an industry is entitled to a free ride every now and again, but we should  be prepared just as often to make effective contributions to the future of the industry, ensuring it is defined by integrity and humility. In short, get off and push.

 

The Entropy of Intent

December 3, 2013

With the publication of his article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Information’ in 1948, a visionary mathematician and engineer named Claude Shannon all but established information theory, outlining in his paper the building blocks of digital communications.

His work introduced a contextual definition of ‘entropy’, addressing the reliability of data transfer, the conveyance of information from a source to a receiver. If ‘Shannon entropy’ was low, then the predictability of the information content was said to be high. Shannon has been credited with laying foundations that ultimately led to the creation of the world wide web itself.

The fundamental problem of communication,” Shannon put forward in his publication, “is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point. He was – and is – of course absolutely right.

However the specific challenge that Shannon was referring to was one of technology, and the need for purity of signal and removal of distortion caused by interference such as compression of data. The irony is that, in a web that is a legacy of the work of pioneers like Shannon, information entropy is less likely to be as a result of technological factors, and more a simple failing of human communication.

To put it more succinctly – it doesn’t matter how perfect data transfer is if the data itself is wrong.

In this post from last month, (echoing this piece from earlier in the year) Jeremy Keith opines that the web has drifted away from its original vision. It is lacking, states Keith, “because we shaped it that way, either through our own actions or inactions”.

A deterioration of vision or purpose due to human-related factors – the entropy of intent.

This same decay can manifest itself at a granular level in design and development projects; a deterioration of what was originally desired, intended or agreed, dissipated across meetings, through processes, sign-offs and the myriad communications that take place between various parties as a project progresses.

The idea of ‘entropy of intent’ is not referring to, for instance, constraints being applied to features or narrowing the scope of the project (both of which can actually be hugely positive moves). It may however manifest itself in other seemingly innocuous ways such as: poor copywriting; ineffective navigation and wayfinding; needless functionality. Anything in fact which distorts the communication of ideas and concepts between the source (the project team) to the receiver (end users).

Protecting intent doesn’t come under project management; it isn’t the client’s responsibility, nor specifically that of the design or development teams. Responsibility exists both within and outside the traditional project roles. More than anyone though, I believe it falls to the UX function to keep a project true to its original purpose, which will generally be  more all-embracing than the minutiae of conversions, KPIs and metrics.

Without question it takes a huge amount of effort to even articulate the central intent for a project never mind maintain focus on it. One key contribution that UX design can effectively make is firstly to identify and agree core guiding principles, and then to keep those principles in play right through to delivery. But it is a monumental challenge.

I’ve been involved in projects over the years where mere delivery was celebrated. Something that began with high aspirations and apparently clear goals became something to simply get finished and tick off a list. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. What it means is that somewhere along the way the original vision for the project has become secondary to other priorities – sometimes this may be just getting it ‘out the door’.

Help is at hand, unsurprisingly from a fantastic and supportive UX and design community:

  • Any project comes with a brief, albeit one that might be vague or unfocused. Creating a vision though is just as important. This article from UX Magazine offers some excellent advice on creating an effective, singular vision
  • It may be the user’s intent, rather than the project’s, that requires clarification. UX Matters published The Importance of Knowing User Intent some time ago, documenting how this can be identified, which in turn can feed into the vision for the project as a whole
  • Dan Klyn has spoken on defining what “good” means on a project and outlined the use of Performance Continuums. I highly recommend his talk, which can be listened to on the UX Thursday website, with accompanying slides available on Slideshare

No project will ever embody perfection. But neither should every project fall prey to a lack of stamina or will to create something if not great, then truly effective for the organisation funding it and the people who will ultimately make use of it. Following the critical early stages of a project, when it is often easy to feel that the difficult decisions have been made and all the big battles already won, the war of attrition against entropy is only beginning.

Practise like an expert, don’t communicate like one.

October 28, 2013

Peer networking in the design community is thankfully not the rarity it used to be. Where there were onceinfrequent events based around an occasional high-brow lecture or overly self-conscious ‘networking opportunity’ (ugh), thanks to any number of driven and enthusiastic individuals we now have conferences, unconventions, informal meet-ups and increasingly relevant and compelling talks.

Industry peers aside though, our professional communications take place with a number of other key groups: colleagues, clients and end users. It’s worth considering how we handle these conversations.

A couple of years back the excellent UX Bookclub Belfast covered ‘How to Use Your Eyes’ by James Elkins. Each chapter delivered a brief but compelling insight into the expertise of others. By deconstructing (amongst other things) a culvert, an oil painting and the Periodic Table, the book revealed hidden mechanics and meanings, inspiring admiration for those whose contributions you might not otherwise consider.

Had there been a chapter devoted to the makeup of a graphic user interface or how a web browser renders HTML, no doubt most in the web design industry could have articulated something to inspire  similar, admiring reactions from readers outside our sphere of activity. Indeed, expertise is (or should be) the minimum price of entry into the increasingly crowded Service Industry Club. A key question to consider then, is: how do we convey our knowledge to those we most need to engage with?

It just works

Almost everything we interact with or consume is the product of others’ technical mastery; their input is largely invisible, allowing us to go about our day without having to consider theories, systems or production processes. We care about these things, only in the sense that they just work without insight on our part.

The same goes for most experts we come into contact with. Be it a doctor or a car mechanic, we appreciate it when these people frame problems and solutions in the simplest possible simple terms, revealing more detail only when we request it.

Dumbing up

In UX design, and I’d suggest pretty much every other design discipline, expertise should manifest itself in simplicity. Or to rephrase that, the science we incorporate into what we produce should be invisible to a non-expert; and we should be able to communicate our expertise while remaining intelligible to the listener.

Too often we trip over ourselves to prove our competence rather than communicate it effectively. In many ways our ability blinds us. We should not berate the client for, as designers are so fond of saying, “not getting it”. Others do not see as we do. We are the ones who have the responsibility of making sure clients “get it”… whatever “it” may be.

So perhaps the truest test of our competence is how simply we can share it. When we discuss a project’s challenges and potential solutions with a client, make it simple to understand. Communicate like a true expert.

Truth and Reconciliation

September 12, 2013

Research can so often be construed as an inherently noble pursuit. Activity intended to increase understanding, clarity, depth of knowledge? It can only be worthy, surely.

Of course, research is subjective. When governments (as an example) commission research activity, many harbour a suspicion that the findings will – conveniently – either directly support, or be spun in such a way as to support, a particular policy.

Certain marketing approaches can devalue research completely (it really is worth a look at some of the small print flashed on-screen in the middle of ads for hair care or beauty products). Leading, loaded or suggestive questions have a huge effect on survey results and the conclusions they appear to inspire.

With research such a core ingredient in the overall UX mix, those in user experience need to be very sensitive as to how their own contributions might be similarly skewing or obfuscating reality.

My belief is that UX research must stand apart and distinguish itself. Lofty idealism it may be, but with innovation, adoption and growth as ultimate goals, UX research needs to deliver truth.

You will hear all kinds of views from stakeholders within a business or organisation and each is but one part of a broader picture. Research what an organisation represents to its customers and end users however, and a different picture can emerge. It is likely to be a more definitive one.

The role of UX in the discovery phase of a project can and should be to uncover truth and reflect it back at the organisation. Often this can be very uncomfortable to deliver, and difficult to accept (if it is accepted at all).

So this is our job. Only by revealing truths and reconciling these with an organisation’s culture or belief about itself, can we approach the starting point for the creation of something new, something better. Something true.

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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