On UX, amateur design, emergence, and a changing world

On Sundays, I often make time to read or listen to thought-provoking essays and talks. Yesterday I got not one, not two, but three of them that collectively knocked me to my knees.

First, Cennydd Bowles’ closing plenary at the IA Summit made the point that user experience (UX) has finally reached the mainstream. We designers don’t own it anymore — everyone who builds products and websites is responsible for the user experience. Most of those people now understand the value of good customer-centered design, and how to create it, when ten years ago they may not have. Furthermore, things are changing in the world: in 2011, people expect their digital artifacts to be ubiquitous, connected, empowering, and to serve their needs. He says, “A great deal of the world will have to be re-engineered around the needs of communities and citizens. We can be central to this movement; in fact, I’d say it’s our moral obligation.” Amen.

Second, Studio 360 reposted an interview with Christopher Alexander. (An architect and philosopher, he’s the one who started the whole patterns movement with his book, A Pattern Language.) While I wish the short podcast had more of Alexander’s own words, it reiterated for me one of his core ideas — that non-architects can pick up and use these pieces of design to create humane, local, unique designs that suit their way of living. They don’t always need architects. And their built environments should put their needs and hearts first; not business interests, not governments, not trendy design ideas.

Third — and I’m sorry, but you can’t find this one online! — I attended a spellbinding talk by Phyllis Tickle, the founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly. Okay, it had nothing directly to do with design. (shrug) But a few of the themes she touched upon resonated with these other two talks in remarkable ways. She sees a worldwide emergence of religious believers who are increasingly diverse, connected, community-based, unwilling to quietly accept hierarchical or top-down control, and perfectly happy to construct their own experiences that meet their spiritual needs. Oh, it all sounds very familiar…

Humane. Customized. Unique. Bottom-up. Suited to the local environment. Connected to other people. Self-designed and constructed; we don’t need the experts for everything. Is this where digital design is headed?

Honestly, I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

When I wrote Designing Interfaces, I intended it to be used by non-designers more than professional designers. The pros already know all that stuff, but in 2005, most software engineers and product managers didn’t. Happily, many of them now do! At Google, for instance, the engineers I worked with were quite aware of UX principles and techniques. Some of them produced excellent designs without the direct help of UX specialists. And that’s good. There’s still a role for skilled professionals, and there always will be, but seriously, we can’t do all the design work that needs doing — there’s too much of it!

Now I’m seeing laypeople create good design, too. I suppose that’s the next frontier. But let me pull in the themes above: specifically, what does it mean for people to design or modify their own digital habitats?

  • It means excellent digital support for the things that nurture our hearts: family photos, videos, friends’ blog posts, personal emails, and other items that mean a lot to us personally. We should be able to put them into secure places where we can find them, enjoy them, respond to them. And create them, of course.
  • In a related vein, we want to be able to find stuff easily, whether in the cloud or our private devices. We need organizational models that make sense, that scale well, and that remain stable over time. We need repositories that are easy to search, and tools that are robust with respect to where documents come from and what format they’re in.
  • We want to choose who we connect with online, and to easily keep track of those conversations that are going on now. Who’s in our digital social circles? When and how often do we hear from them? How often do we feel compelled to respond, and does that end up being a pleasure or an unhealthy compulsion? How can our social tools — email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — help us manage that so that we’re gentle to ourselves and others?
  • We want to know what’s going on in the world, with more truth and less bias. How and when do we find out about stuff? We choose between “tell me when it happens” (push) and “let me seek it out” (pull), and maybe we want more control over the source and medium of our news. (I hate news videos, personally; give me an article or transcript anytime.) And we don’t like being deceived. How do we assess the authenticity and truthfulness of our news sources, so we can make intelligent choices? How do our social circles influence all this?
  • Entertainment. Yeah, that’s a big part of our online lives. Again, how, when, and where do we choose to “waste” our brains on stuff that makes us happy (or riles us up)? There are some things I’d rather see on a large screen than a mobile screen, for instance, but if the mobile app supplier doesn’t have a rich web presence that I can find, then I’m out of luck. Or vice versa.
  • Low “friction” for necessary chores. I pay my bills online, and it’s better than the paper alternative, but it’s not exactly fun; the quicker and simpler it is, the better. Likewise for online shopping. I’ll pick stores and services that offer the easiest experiences, and I’ll do whatever is needed to make it even easier (within reason).
  • Control over our digital identity. What image do we project to the world? Do we use different online personas for different contexts, e.g. family versus work, and how do we manage those? Most importantly, we need strong, detailed control over our privacy. Our tools absolutely have to provide that; it’s inhumane not to do so.
  • Beyond designing our own digital habitats, we sometimes design them for others. Our children, for instance — we want their online environments to protect them, encourage them, and teach them. Our digital tools should support the important work of families and teachers.

It’s interesting that nowhere in this list does “layout” appear. Nor “color” or “typography” or “form design” or any other low-level design concept. They’re still important parts of our craft, of course, and laypeople ought to know about them. But in the end, their only real value is in how well they serve bigger needs: content, connection, self-determination, convenience, beauty.

Onward to the actual patterns! I promise to keep them in their proper place.

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