History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 3

The third in a series of posts on the history of the user experience field in Michigan. This part concludes the first chapter.

HCI at the University of Michigan in the 1980s

In the years preceding the growth of the user experience profession, the University of Michigan was home to faculty that focused on HCI-related topics. Marilyn Mantei (later Marilyn Tremaine), professor at the University of Michigan Business School at the time, was instrumental to the establishment of SIGCHI, and served as vice president of communications, finance, and conference planning and, later, president. The University of Michigan also had faculty interested in this field that would go on to join the University of Michigan School of Information when it formed in the late 90s, including Judy Olsen and Gary Olsen, two prominent figures in the HCI world.

According to Tremaine, “Suddenly I got this call from Gary Olsen and he said, ‘There’s this woman at Bell Labs, and she’s applying for a job. She used to work in Psychology at the University of Michigan and now she’s coming back and she’s apply for a job. Is there a job in IAS at the Business School?’” This woman, Judy Wrightman, returned to the University of Michigan and went on to marry Gary Olsen.

Together, Marilyn Tremaine, Judy Olsen, and Gary Olsen taught the first HCI class at the University of Michigan. This class drew graduate students from the Business School and from the Psychology and Computer Science Departments.

HCI in the Professional Sphere in the 1980s and early 1990s

It was unusual, in the 80s and early 90s, for people to apply HCI to practical problems outside of academia.

One of those places was an Ann Arbor company called Ann Arbor Softworks, best known for the word processing application FullWrite. Marilyn Tremaine took a sabbatical from the University of Michigan to become their head of research and development, applying the methods she helped pioneer. “I did things like run focus groups, and then usability studies on the software,” Tremaine says.

FullWrite was a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor that competed with the software Apple bundled with its computers, MacWrite. Unfortunately, the software was plagued with missed release dates, with January 1987 being the first of them. Just before its January 1988 release, Ashton-Tate purchased Ann Arbor Softworks and released the software in April of that year[1].

TecEd was another early pioneer in professional HCI, also known at the time as usability. Stephanie Rosenbaum founded TecEd in 1967 as a technical documentation consultancy focusing on computers. According to Rosenbaum:

Once computing started moving from mainframes into minicomputers, at the same time it was moving into industry. People were starting to use computers for things other than major engineering applications, where the only users were PhD engineers. So all of a sudden there was a growing community of people who needed to know what to do, and the only people who knew what to do were horrible at explaining it. So, having seen this from both sides, I said, “We need a service,” and the service is to be a translator from engineering-ese to human being-ese. We started writing help systems and user guides and instructional materials.

By the late 80s, it was clear to Rosenbaum that she could have a greater impact on the usability of computer software through actually improving the user interfaces rather than simply writing documentation on how to use them. One of the examples she relates is:

We were writing a user guide for one of the first personal computer accounting systems for an Atari computer. We started writing how to execute the various commands, and as we documented them, we realized there was a huge inconsistency. Atari had two separate design and development teams. and the result was that half the commands in this product took effect the moment you finished typing the command and the other half required you to enter a carriage return. We started writing it down, and we said, “Wait a minute,” and we went back to our contact and we said, “It behaves like this.”
Atari said, “It doesn’t! It couldn’t possibly!” But we had documented exactly what the software did. And no one should have an instruction manual that says, “For these 20 commands enter a carriage return, and for these 20 commands, don’t bother.”

According to Rosenbaum, “we realized we needed to take a step up the food chain and make sure that the products, systems, and eventually websites and apps were themselves usable.” TecEd reinvented itself in the mid 80s through early 90s. She and members of her team studied the body of HCI literature, learning how to apply this academic material to studying user behavior on behalf of clients. It is interesting to note that at this time, it was feasible to actually read the entire body of literature on HCI. TecEd also began to hire people with backgrounds in cognitive psychology and HCI.

Rosenbaum began to attend the SIGCHI and HFES conferences every year, but found “that CHI and what was then HFS were highly academic conferences. It wasn’t that practitioners couldn’t benefit from them, but you had to fill in a lot of gaps between somebody giving a paper on something from their PhD thesis and something that you could actually apply to make a product better.” She was not the only practitioner to feel this way, and the Usability Professionals’ Association was founded in 1991 by practitioners that wanted an organization that focused on their needs. Rosenbaum was one of the charter members of this new organization, although it would be another decade before Michigan would see its own UPA chapter.


It is also worth noting that during the 80s and early 90s, there was already an organization in Michigan that had an interest in user experience topics. The Society for Technical Communication is a decades-old professional organization for technical communicators such as people that write software manuals. Michigan has long had two chapters of this organization, West Michigan Shores – Society for Technical Communication (WMS-STC) and the Southeastern Michigan Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC/SM). One of STC’s special interest groups, like ACM, is Usability and User Experience. Over the years, STC/SM has had meetings that touched on UX-related topics, and went on to collaborate with the local chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association (now User Experience Professionals’ Association) in organizing events.

Michigan Before the UX Explosion

In the early 90s, there was already a small UX community in Michigan. This community was centered in Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan and one of TecEd’s headquarters are located. Beside this cluster of people engaged with the then-emerging field of HCI, there were also human factors researchers and professionals and technical communicators interested in usability.
The UX community would expand considerably starting in the mid-90s. The trend toward cheaper and more powerful computers had already spurred the creation of the HCI field. As this trend continued and combined with the birth of the world wide web, there was explosive growth in the number of practitioners.

The community created by these professionals was shaped in its early days by the prominence of the University of Michigan and, later, by the automotive industry. The following chapters will discuss this evolution.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/31/science/personal-computers-even-pc-s-join-in-year-of-the-mac.html

History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 2

The second part of an ongoing series on the history of the user experience field in Michigan. In these early sections, we look at how the UX field came into being.

Human-Computer Interaction Emerges as a Discipline

Human-computer interaction (HCI) emerged as an academic discipline in the late 1970s at a time when the use of computers expanded beyond a few specialists and hobbyists to an increasing number of mainstream users. This field grew from the fields of cognitive psychology and human factors. In time, HCI would become one of the influences feeding into the user experience field. The growth of HCI is intertwined with the creation of the organization Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

From Mainframes to Minicomputers

A full history of the computer is beyond the scope of this piece. For our purpose, we can start with the dawn of digital computing in the first half of the 20th century. These early devices were large, entirely mechanical, and could only be reprogrammed by changing the wiring in the device. Computers advanced during World War II, becoming faster and electronic because of the addition of vacuum tubes, and by the end of the war there were considerably more computers and computer scientists in the world.

Transistors replaced vacuum tubes in the 1950s, making computers smaller, more reliable, and commercially available, fueling a spread in computers beyond academia. Minicomputers first came out in the 60s and were relatively widespread in the 70s. At this point, the number of people using computers grew considerably in both workplace and even personal settings, leading to considerable growth in the number of usability problems.


The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Social and Behavioral Computing (SIGSOC) formed in 1969 to focus on the use of computers in the social sciences[1]. As Marilyn Tremaine, one of the people involved in the transition from SIGSOC to SIGCHI and a professor at the University of Michigan at the time, says:

They were focusing on getting software that handled statistics developed and available in all the universities. This may seem kind of dumb now, but nobody had such tools in the 70s, and if you wanted to an analysis of variance, you had to write your own program. Then, there was a major company—two eventually—that started producing the software, and so users formed SIGSOC to manage the sharing and specification of the stat packages they wanted.

By 1980 or so, SIGSOC didn’t need to exist anymore. Every academic computing center had such packages and the packages themselves provided substantial support for researchers

In the late 70s, interest in SIGSOC decreased and its members began to focus more on professional organizations in their own disciplines.

However, SIGSOC would get a new lease on life as it refocused on the nascent field of human-computer interaction. Lorraine Borman, another figure in the early years of ACM SIGCHI, writes in her article “SIGCHI: The Early Years”:

However, during this same period of time, a growing number of people became concerned about the human interaction of computer systems. The need for “people-oriented” systems, which reflected the needs and behavioral characteristics of the user population, became a matter of major interest to the computing profession. People working in this area spoke about the “user interface”, the “human factors and ergonomics” of systems.

In 1978, SIGSOC’s Chair, Greg Marks of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, and the editor of the SIGSOC Bulletin, Lorraine Borman, began to redefine the purpose of the group. According to Borman, “SIGSOC presented what may have been the first ACM panel presentation on the user interface at the ACM Conference in Washington, D.C. in December, 1978.” This panel was called “People-oriented Systems: When and How?”. It was in 1978 that Borman began to lobby ACM to allow SIGSOC to redefine its scope from the narrow focus on statistical software to human-computer interaction.

After a few years of this lobbying, Marks and Borman had the idea of organizing a conference in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, titled “Easier and More Productive Use of Computing Systems.” With the help of Marilyn Tremaine, who was instrumental in enticing leading figures in the HCI field to attend, they put on this conference in May 1981. It focused on “Human Interaction and the User Interface[2].”

According to Borman, this successful conference “drew people together from various places and diverse backgrounds: practitioners met with users, designers met with theorists.” However, Borman blames the inaccurate name of the organization, SIGSOC, for their lack of visibility and membership. “Our argument was that, with a name change, our membership would grow and we would be providing an organization for people working in the area of the human interface who then did not have a forum within the ACM structure.”

In early 1982, it looked increasingly likely that the ACM SIG board would approve SIGSOC’s change of scope. In March 1982, the Software Psychology Society, an informal organization in the Washington DC area, decided to hold a conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Much like the organizers of the Ann Arbor conference, the Gaithersburg conference organizers reached out to the members of the community that they were connected to, and they had about a thousand people show up—far more than anticipated.

Paul Green, researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, states that Al Chapanis, a pioneer in human factors and a speaker at the Gaithersburg conference, brought an unexpected number of people from the human factors community to the conference and spread the idea of a connection between human factors and computing:

They invited Al Chapanis as the speaker. Chapanis had been the president of the HFES, and he was really well known to human factors people. He was doing a lot of the early work on communication and related topics, as they pertain to computer systems. As I recall, the original plan was to have a chapter meeting, and they thought 200 people would show up. Instead, they invited Chapanis, and he connected with the Human Factors community, and something like 600 people showed up…

People said, “Oh, I think we’ve discovered something. A connection between the ACM people and the Human Factors people. What should we make of this?” There was a meeting afterwards, and… there was a lot of discussion about continuing this meeting in a collaborative manner, but what happened was that ACM had the resources, and they ran with it, and formed SIGCHI.

Tremaine says of this conference:

There were a thousand people that came to the 1982 conference from all over the world. It was amazing! The organizers were blown away. They had expected maybe 200 people, max, to come. We had this meeting about what was to become SIGCHI and the hotel hadn’t taken the bed out of the room, so people were sitting on the bed and sitting on the floor. That was the first SIGCHI meeting, and at that meeting, we voted on what we should call the society. We came up with “SIGCHI” because “SIGCHI” sounded easier to pronounce than “SIGHCI.”

Finally, in Spring 1982, after the Gaithersburg conference, the ACM SIG board held a vote and SIGSOC officially became SIGCHI. SIGCHI became the seed for the HCI community, which grew in the 80s and early 90s before the emergence of the internet in the mid-90s rapidly accelerated the HCI field and changed its direction.

[1] http://old.sigchi.org/bulletin/1996.1/borman.html
[2] SIGSOC Bulletin, January 1982, 13, 2-3, Proceedings Editor: L. Borman

History of UX in Michigan: Chapter 1: Before UX, Part 1

The first part of an ongoing series about the history of the user experience field in Michigan. In these early sections, we set the stage by examining the pre-history of UX.

The Michigan user experience professional community has grown significantly in the past 20 years—particularly the last 10—but it has roots that are older.

Due largely to the automotive industry, this region has a relatively long history of researchers and professionals in human factors, one of UX’s ancestors. Today there is little interaction between human factors and the UX communities. However, as the UX’s academic ancestor, human-computer interaction discipline (HCI), emerged in the late 70s and early 80s, there was more interaction between these communities.

Some of the faculty at the University of Michigan were also involved in establishing the HCI field. Although the university has always been more focused on the national and international HCI community, it went on to provide a valuable foothold for the early days of the professional community.

The user experience field formed as a response to technological change—by the explosion in the number of personal computers combined with the dawn of the modern internet. This was true in Michigan, and the UX community was shaped by the social conditions of active academic communities and local industries. This chapter looks at the landscape of Michigan before the growth of UX in the mid-90s.

Human Factors and Ergonomics

Long before the growth of the user experience field and continuing to this day, Michigan has been home to several human factors and ergonomics professionals, focused mainly on the automotive industry. These professionals have academic counterparts working at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and together they have a community in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). Despite both fields being concerned with humans’ interaction with technology, there has never been close ties between human factors and UX in Michigan.

The field of human factors and ergonomics has roots in the 19th century (although the idea of designing tools according to ergonomic principles is ancient). Frederick Winslow Taylor was an early pioneer in human factors in ergonomics. His “scientific management” method sought to extend control over workers’ bodies in order to extract more labor from them by quantifying and optimizing their work. “Scientific management” closely analyzed workers’ movements to determine the optimal set of movements and configuration of tools. The quantification of human behavior went on to become an important aspect of creating a scientific discipline around designing for human capabilities.

The human factors disciplined emerged during World War II in response to the invention of complex machines, such as a new generation of aircraft. At this point, the concept of measuring human capabilities moved away from the explicit exploitative goal of “scientific management” to attempting to make machines that accommodated human capabilities. Designing airplane cockpits that acknowledged the limits of physical and cognitive abilities was an urgent safety matter.

In the decades after World War II, human factors and ergonomics research expanded beyond aviation, such as into the automotive industry, and flourished.

Human Factors and Ergonomics in Michigan

Metro Detroit is home to the the companies that have historically dominated the American automotive industry. Human factors and ergonomics plays an important role in interior design for automobiles, and as a result Michigan has been home to a still-growing community of human factors specialists.

Although there is a professional organization for these professionals, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) has never had an active chapter in Southeast Michigan. However, the University of Michigan is home to a long-standing student chapter[1]. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) also has a local chapter[2] and this international organization holds large events in Michigan on a regular basis[3].

The University of Michigan is home to several human factors researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which was founded in 1965 to research motor vehicle safety[4]. One of UMTRI’s sources of funding is auto companies that commission research.

There are other pockets of human factors engineering throughout Michigan. Beside UMTRI, the University of Michigan is also the home of the Center for Ergonomics, founded in 1959 to conduct ergonomics research. Another is at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) National Center for Patient Safety, which has one of its two locations at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. The National Center for Patient Safety “was established in 1999 to lead the VA’s patient safety efforts and to develop and nurture a culture of safety throughout the Veterans Health Administration[5].”

[1] http://www.umich.edu/~hfes/Webpages/index.html
[2] http://www.sae.org/membership/sections/list/
[3] http://www.sae.org/events/
[4] http://www.umtri.umich.edu/who-we-are
[5] http://www.patientsafety.va.gov/about/organization.asp

Ignite UX Michigan Returns in March 2017

Ignite UX Michigan is coming back in March 2017! Planning has barely started—we’ve gotten as far as saying “yes, we want to do this again” and “yes, we’d love to have some great people helping us again.”

Every year, we try to work on improving different aspects of the event, and once again we have some tactical opportunities to address like improving the space the event occupies and tweaking the proposal review process.

The big thing for me this year, though, is starting to really focus on the long term sustainability of the event. Every year, we’ve had more people get more involved in event planning. I want to take that significantly further, with the goal of making this an event that any one person can step back from. I think we can do it.

Interview with Dan Klyn, Part Two

Richard Saul Wurman and Information Architecture

Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architecture” in the mid 70s in reference to the design of information, and information science influenced the research on computer interfaces at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center through the mid 80s. After a quiet period for the field, information architecture experienced a resurgence in the mid 90s, with the growth of the World Wide Web. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, developed the ideas of information architecture and brought mainstream attention to it.

In this part, Dan Klyn discusses how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work on information architecture.

Tell me more about how you transitioned into information architecture and your interest in drawing on architecture and Richard Saul Wurman’s work.
When I met Peter Morville, I gravitated more to him as a mentor. The way I approach being a mentee is that I find somebody I want to be like, and do everything that they do. What does Morville do? He teaches, does consulting, and writes books and talks at conferences. I was going to do all those things.

I came back to Wayne State’s library program as an alumnus and said, “What if I offered a course on information architecture? You know it was invented by librarians in Ann Arbor and I know these guys.” I started teaching it for four hours on Sunday afternoons. I taught it from the Polar Bear book, exactly the way that Morville taught it at the University of Michigan, which is pretty much chapter by chapter, and by having the students do a strategy report.

What’s funny is that it was so boring, the way he taught it. He would admit it was the worst. I subbed for him a couple of times at University of Michigan School of Information and the students liked me, and with the combination of his independent consulting business getting really busy and seeing that I really loved teaching this stuff, he resigned from teaching it.

He wrote to the dean, Olivia Frost, “I’m too busy to teach anymore, but Dan subbed for me and did a really great job. You should hire him.” So they did.

I was the dog who had chased the car and caught it—I didn’t know what to do. I had taught this a couple of times and it was fairly boring. I was in the gap between the second and third editions of the Polar Bear book. Folksonomies and tagging were starting to become a thing. Increasingly I felt the Polar Bear stuff was getting kind of old. That was part of the impetus to learn more about architecture.

To my limited knowledge, nobody in the field was addressing the architecture part, but I was wrong.

My first IA Summit[1] was 2009. Chris Farnum, who worked at Argus, introduced me to Andrea Resmini[2] and Jorge Arango[3]. I didn’t talk to Chris for the rest of the Summit. I just glommed onto Resmini and Arango like a barnacle. I’m sure they found it highly annoying, but I was just delighted because my sense was that we had the information part covered but there was so much more to do in the direction of architecture. These people who were trained as architects were so much further ahead of us. They knew Andrew Hinton[4], who has been talking and thinking about architecture since the founding of the IA Institute[5]. That’s when it all started happening for me.

Then Jesse James Garrett[6] spoke at the IA Summit and blew it all up, and that was great. He said there’s no such thing as information architects—that there are only user experience designers. Having begged my boss for the budget to go, being stoked about information architecture as a thing, and to have the culmination of that be, “Hey, this thing that you think is really important is so not the thing”—that was a formative experience for me. I am certain that I wouldn’t have ended up starting a company nor would I have gone as deeply into the Wurman direction had information architecture as a concept not been threatened with non-existence by Jesse.

I’ve had the chance to talk with him specifically about it a number of times, and it’s precisely what he hoped to do. There is a tradition in architecture of provocation as a mode of discourse that I was unaware of. I defy you to find someone who loves and is more knowledgable about information architecture than Jesse James Garrett. His introductions to both editions of Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web is some of the best writing on “What is Information Architecture.”

At the time I didn’t know any of this. I was a sincerely mortified. He started out by saying, “I realize that it’s an honor to give the closing plenary at this event, and the last thing I would do is subject you to a product demo” which is then, I felt, exactly what he proceeded to do.

He rightly identified information architecture and interaction design as being in a sort of struggle of where when one rises, the other is down. Then, the president of the premiere user experience design consulting company, Adaptive Path, proposed a total reframing of the field to demote these constructs and presented this new superset, and there was nobody selling a higher bill rate nor with a higher likelihood of getting the work than Jesse James Garrett and Adaptive Path.

At the time, it seemed like an incredibly shrewd and crude way of recalibrating the community of practice to better align with what a consulting business was doing in the world. While that may be part of the truth of what he was doing, he’s always talked about it with me as a fear of stagnation in a field that he loved. He saw a way to reframe the discussion.

His reframing act in that speech was an act of information architecture. If I was not as threatened by disruption, I maybe could have enjoyed how brilliant the performance art was there, where he was using the thing that he’s saying is no longer a thing to create different kinds of meaning for other concepts that are relevant. I only saw it as a threat.

I behaved like you do when you’re under threat, which is fight or flight, and I geared up for a fight. “Information architect” was important to my identity at that point. I thought, “I’m going to go talk to your dad—I’m going to go dig into Wurman, who clearly is a bigger gun than Garrett, and we’ll talk about some things.”

Jesse and his then wife had a small child the next year, and after 2009 he really didn’t travel for conferences or anything for the next couple of years. This was unfortunate because I had a role in bringing Wurman to the IA Summit in 2010, and specifically hoped to see him to go beat up Jesse James Garrett. Of course Wurman didn’t care, but he showed up. There was no collision of the ideas or vindication, but life goes on.

The young volunteer who was responsible for organizing Mr Wurman’s birthday party at that summit in 2010 was Abby Covert. Were it not for Jesse blowing up my world, making me mad, making me call Wurman, and making it necessary for his birthday to be observed at the event where the throwdown was supposed to happen, I wouldn’t have met Abby, and without that, I’m not sure what I would do.

We decided together explicitly that this is really important to us and that we were going to work together to make sure that information architecture would continue to be a thing—that it wouldn’t be completely eclipsed, completely subsumed, into user experience.

It’s not that we don’t like user experience. The experience of users is everything that happens on the basis of the work that we do. We had the sense that we had to fight for, argue for, and make really clear examples of the value of information architecture as part of user experience design.

I think a lot of that struggle between IA and UX was because the first generation of information architects really didn’t have the architecture piece. It was just an analogy and a metaphor, and focusing on the architecture part has been the cornerstone of what Abby and I and a few others have specifically been trying to do in the field.

There’s a lot to do, still, but we’ve been fairly pleased with the results so far. I think the world is conspiring on our behalf also. For example, when Apple launches a new music service, Trent Reznor says there needs to be one place for music online—there’s the adoption of “place” as the way of saying “what are these services.”

I also think it’s just the fullness of time. In 1998, to say that this is architecture and these are places made of information that have to be good for people—that you can take the heuristics for what made physical environments good for people and just apply them directly to digital wasn’t something you could do in 1998. It would only be an analogy.

I remember what those digital places were like and you would have to be predisposed to seeing everything in terms of architecture, everything in terms of space. Today I think if you told civilians, “It’s a place that’s made of information where your life happens, and a lot of the reasons why this physical building is worth keeping up could be used to govern what we do in digital,” they’d say, “Yeah, of course.”

[1] An annual conference focused on information architecture that started in 2000.
[2] Information architect and active member of the IA community, and co-author of Pervasive Information Architecture.
[3] Also an information architect and active member of the IA community, and a co-author of the fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
[4] Another information architect and active member of the IA community, and author of Understanding Context.
[5] An organization founded in 2002 to advance the field of information architecture.
[6] Information architect, author of The Elements of User Experience, and co-founder of Adaptive Path.

Interview with Dan Klyn, Part One

Dan Klyn is a leader in the information architecture community, with a strong interest in drawing more directly on architecture and the work of Richard Saul Wurman to inform IA. He is the co-founder of The Understanding Group, a consulting firm focused on information architecture.

In this part, we focus on how he entered the information architecture field. In part two, Dan Klyn how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work in information architecture.

Entering the Information Architecture Field

This is a broad question, but how did you get into information architecture?
I was in the Library and Information Science program at Wayne State University in 1998. The difference between job and career opportunities for librarians and for people who knew how to work on the World Wide Web was vast, and even though I started with good intentions to work in a library—I wanted to be a descriptive bibliographer—I knew how to make web pages and I had a knack for organization. It was easy to get into what became UX, if you had a Library and Information Science degree, and knew stuff about websites.

How specifically did you learn that this was a job that one could do—that librarian skills were applicable to working on websites?
I didn’t know that for sure. I got a job as the webmaster of Wayne County while I was at graduate school because I’d taught myself HTML. I was using the web solely as a way to publish my academic work and to connect with other people.

When I graduated in 1998, I went to work at AllMusic.com. Michael Earlywine, who invented AllMusic.com, the All Music Guide, was seeking people with the combination of library degree and ability to understand the functional design of websites. He called it a Functional Designer. He saw my role as the “what” before the “how.” I was there for two years and I became really good at the job, which was information architecture, but I didn’t know the name for it.

AllMusic.com was trying to build an online music magazine where you could just click on the name of a song and have it deliver an instantaneous high fidelity playback of music. It was too early for its time, though. I was responsible for the functional parts of the design but had also been given more and more leeway into visual design.

In 2000, I got a job at Q, which is a design firm that’s still in Ann Arbor. Q hired me because I could do a Photoshop layout that could be rendered across web browsers, to the pixel. At the time this was highly valued because they wanted the design to be right and browsers couldn’t render fonts, or lots of other things, but I could trick the browsers into doing them.

They were pioneers of selling design consultant services for the World Wide Web. Q had a partnership with two other firms in town. Many of the earliest commercial websites were put up by a triumvirate of Q, for visual design, Argus for information architecture, and Interconnect for the technology platform.

I didn’t know anything about these areas. I just interjected myself into the technology people’s space, and the information architecture space, because I knew about the aesthetic, spatial design stuff. Not through any training—just because I have a knack for it. I could do it all and they used these other partners less and less, especially on the smaller stuff which would be a pain in the neck for the other partners.

I’d certainly never thought of architecture as was I was doing. I had no sense that what I was doing, or that the value that I was bringing, had to do with architecture.

I also didn’t think that it was design—I didn’t have any training or a degree, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a designer, and I had not yet heard of information architecture.

Then, in early Spring of 2000—one of the first days the tables were out on the sidewalks—I went to a meeting on Main Street in Ann Arbor to talk about a project for Consumers Energy. On the other side of the table from me were Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld*.

That was the first time I’d heard the words “information architecture.” Prior to that, we just referred to their company, Argus. The concept of information architecture wasn’t really necessary or relevant, somehow, to situating me in a company that has a partnership with them.

I looked at the designer I was with, then looked at Peter and Lou, and I thought “I’m on the wrong side of the table.” These guys made a whole business—they had 40 people working for them—doing the thing that I’m good at and love. I could see pretty clearly at that point that I was doing a baby version of what they had already created a consulting business around.

That was when I knew that information architecture was a thing.

Unlike me, Peter and Lou were working more as librarians and taxonomists—organizers of things. They weren’t talking about space as a three dimensional place where geometry is employed toward meaning, or anything like that. “Architecture” was only metaphorical at that point.

The more I investigated it and poked at it, the more it made sense to me why they called it architecture, because they, like me, didn’t want to be called “designers.” They didn’t think that the visual is part of what they did. information architects, in their work, didn’t have purview over the visual dimension or how space is configured. I think back then they would say information architecture is more about the semantic. Though their answer may be different now, they always held the architecture part uncomfortably.

* Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld were founders of Argus, and agency focused on Information Architecture, and authors of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

PNC’s Ineffective Survey Questions

A while back, I got an email from PNC asking me to fill out a survey:

As a valued PNC customer, we would like to invite you to participate in an online survey about PNC credit card satisfaction and expectations. Your opinions are extremely important and will help PNC develop products that are most relevant and meaningful to its customers. The study will take around 15 minutes of your time.

PNC has asked Gfk Custom Research, LLC, an independent research company, to conduct this study on our behalf.

As it turned out, there were something like a hundred questions. There were questions that assumed you had opinions about things and forced you to pick an answer. It was rife with company-centric terminology that had me confused as to what I was answering questions about. There was widespread abuse of the checkbox and huge, complicated two-dimensional matrixes of multiple choice questions.

Basically, it was a lousy survey. I wish I had taken more screenshots. By the time I thought of it, I had gotten to these questions:

"I've begun to notice other credit cards"

“I’ve begun to notice other credit cards”

Needless to say, I found this question rather odd and took a picture of it. Then, there was the very next question:

"Other credit cards are looking more and more attractive"

“Other credit cards are looking more and more attractive”

Well. Huh. That’s not how I normally think about credit cards, but okay. I mean, I don’t really think about credit cards much at all, which is kind of an underlying problem with this survey. Finally, there was this disconcerting question:

"I'd like to rekindle a relationship with an old credit card"

“I’d like to rekindle a relationship with an old credit card”

Based on these questions, I strongly suspect that this is a case of GfK taking questions from PNC’s marketing department and throwing them right into the survey. Who talks about credit cards like this? Surely not anyone that doesn’t think about selling credit cards day in and day out.

Video: Putting Humans at the Center of Design

On March 22, 2016, I spoke at TEDxYDL in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This is the video of my talk. The script that I basically used is below.

Look at this door. How do you use it? You push it. What if you didn’t read the sign, or can’t read it? The design suggests that you should pull it.

And there’s this guy. It’s a microwave. Do you know how to get it to heat up a plate of leftovers? Well, it doesn’t work like any other microwave you’ve ever used. No microwave works like any other microwave you’ve used.

And websites can be pretty bad, too. This site does a pretty good job nowadays, but 16 years ago, they had a bit of a problem finding a place to stick all those tabs at the top.

There’s a lot of stuff in this world that’s hard to use. Websites. Computer software. Hospital bills. All those remote controls you’ve got lying around. These things that are hard to use make you feel like a fool. If you only take away one thing from the next few minutes, it’s this: It’s not you. It’s the design. These things should have been designed better

My job is to try to make things like doors, microwaves, and websites easier for people to use.

Nowadays, my job title is “user experience architect.” And the work I do is called “user experience design.”

Let’s unpack those terms.

The user experience is the sum of all of the actions people take and feelings they have when they’re using something. This could be a website, or a computer program, or a phone, a car, a can opener, a building. Anything. The user experience is made up of every part of using that product: the words, buttons, colors, the box something came in, the customer support hotline. Everything.

Now, user experience design is based on going out and seeing how people actually use websites or whatever your product is, or how they’re going about their lives without your product, and then using that information to design or redesign a user experience that meets their needs. It puts humans at the center of design.

Let’s look at an example. I was working on a page where people would read journal articles when they were doing some kind of research. We brought regular people into a lab to test this page and find out how easy it was for them to use, and we interviewed people about how they do research, and a pattern emerged: the most important action people want to take on this page is to download a PDF copy of the article. How do you do it on this page?

Of course, if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it eventually, but if you’re not used to this website, you have to look around for it. The link is small and mixed in with other stuff. That’s why, when we had the chance to rebuild the page, we streamlined it. We made the things people wanted to do bigger, and tucked away the stuff they didn’t use somewhere else so they wouldn’t get in the way. And, of course, after the redesign people found it easier to find that download PDF button.

Designing stuff based on human capabilities isn’t just a matter of making sure you don’t get annoyed by doors and websites, though. It can be a matter of life or death.

In Stockholm a few years ago, they tried something different from other cities to make their roads safer – they started with the assumption that people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. And that it’s the designers that are responsible for designing a road system that prevents people from dying.

For example, intersections with traffic lights have a lot of dangerous, high speed accidents when people run red lights. In Stockholm, they took dangerous intersections and replaced them with roundabouts, forcing people to slow down and pay attention. Rather than just hoping that everyone would see the traffic light, they changed the way the road worked so you couldn’t have the high speed accident.

They committed themselves to designing a city based on human needs and abilities – and it worked! Stockholm has the safest roads of any major city in the world, and are a model for other cities.

Designing to meet human needs and abilities also means designing things to accommodate a range of disabilities. When we design products and the physical world around us, we can’t leave people out, so we have to make sure our designs are universally accessible.

Let’s take blindness, as an example. There are people that use the Internet just by listening to it. That means a page like this kind of sounds like this

When it’s read out loud to you. To design for people who can’t see, you have to make sure your website makes sense to people that can only hear it.

People that really specialize in the accessibility part of user experience design gain a deep understanding of the technology and design techniques that support people with a range of different disabilities—not just blindness.

Taking this approach to design isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business. A study by Forrester indicates that “the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns” and “every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return.”

That’s fantastic.

In the end, the most important thing for you to remember from this talk is that:

It’s not you, it’s the design.

Technology, services, organizations, and society should be designed to meet human needs and capabilities, whether those people are young, old, using something for the first time, distracted, or have disabilities.

When you’re having trouble using a website or a microwave or reading your hospital bill, it’s not your fault. The people that made those things should have done a better job. Design matters. And so as we shape the world with the technology and the society that we build, it is imperative to put humans at the center of the design.

Fraggle Rock and Product Vision

Fraggle Rock is a show about the the interconnectedness of all things in the the world. Created by Jim Henson, almost all of its characters are puppets of some kind. It aired from 1983 to 1987 on HBO (and various other channels), and ended with a trio of episodes that are among my favorite endings on television.

I would like, perhaps surprisingly, to talk about Fraggle Rock in relation to product design.

What am I talking about when I write “product design?” I use the term broadly, covering the design and production of, well, practically anything. In my life, that means working on a product team that is responsible for some aspects of a very large, complicated website. We have embraced lean startup methodology, meaning that we are on a cycle of quickly thinking of design ideas intended to advance some sort of business goal, validating them with actual evidence, and then deciding whether to advance them to production.

Fraggle Rock is, of course, a product that was designed and produced by a large group of very talented people. As a user experience professional, I collaborate with a large group of talented people to build websites. It’s a rather facile observation to say that there are similarities in how people come together to work on big projects.

While I think it would be fascinating to dig into the history of how it was made over the course of four seasons and pre-production, but what I would like to focus on here is how its creator, Jim Henson, gave the show direction before turning it over to the people that would make it.

Fraggle Rock was created by Jim Henson’s production company, which had previously created The Muppet Show and were ready to take on a new project.

This new show came together as a production of British, Canadian, and American television companies. They intentionally set out to create a show that could be easily localized to different countries, in different languages; to that end, they planned for the bulk of each episode to feature puppets that could be dubbed over, and for a few minutes of segments featuring a human that could be filmed in each country.

Although Jim Henson himself wouldn’t be involved in the day to day production of Fraggle Rock, he still set the direction for the show. Given the material circumstances of the show—that it would be made with the very direct intention of localization in different countries—he challenged the product team to make a show that would stop war.

This is a detail that I absolutely love. Because how can a show about puppets end war? Clearly, war is still with us. But a vision doesn’t have to be something that you can reach. Maybe it’s better if it’s something that’s always going to be beyond your grasp, because it is in trying to achieve that vision that you do something great.

The creative decisions about the show fell into line with that vision—it became a show about conflict resolution and the interconnectedness of things in our world between the different levels of scale (in this way, it is a great embodiment of “as above, so below”).

With any product, “what are we trying to do” is a great starting point. What’s your product for?