the bourbon street of ux (or, what I learned at IA Summit ’12)


I  live in Milwaukee, WI, a place where neighbors make snide comments about the slightest lawn care infraction. A bloom of Creeping Charlie or skipping a week behind the mower are heresies.

Midwesterners can be like that. Their work ethic manifests as pride, which manifests in turn as mania.

Though I’m a native son of the Midwest, I long ago stopped believing that this kind of squared-up perfection is desirable. I love visiting places where propriety breaks down, where new and exciting orders emerge from of the perceived lack of outward order.

IA Summit 2012
IA Summit 2012 was held last week in New Orleans, a city that’s exactly like I’ve described. Every block is a seemingly unedited experience—paint bubbles off facades, weeds grow up walls, the colors are wild, tree roots bubble out of the sidewalks.

It feels dangerous (sometimes it is!). It’s exciting, real, human. It’s a place that slaps one with the realization that any life worth living amounts to more life than weed whackers and Chemlawn.

Stay with me, I’m about to talk UX
Many of the presentations I attended at the Summit ended up touching on the idea of embracing chaos and disorder in designs.

The UX world strives so often toward simplicity and order. As practitioners, we’re obsessed with taming interfaces, reducing risk, guiding our users.

But as Karl Fast said in his Information Overload is an Opportunity talk: “Mess is where creativity and insight come from. We must stop thinking we need to make the world a neat and tidy place.”

In other words, we need to design products that are the digital equivalent of New Orleans. Ok, that’s silly & stretching it, but stick with me!

steve-jobs-at-home-1982This is Steve Jobs
steveJobs2This is also Steve Jobs

A Planet of Pilers
In Clutter is KingParis Butterfield-Addison and Jon Manning introduced the concept of pilers in the physical world.

Pilers are people who have stacks of paper and other junk spread out over their desks. It looks outwardly chaotic, but research shows that there’s is a personalized, strategic order to the mess. The most important and heavily used stuff stays at the top. The less important and more infrequently used stuff drifts to the bottom. But when a piler does dig to the bottom, it’s an act of discovery, like, “Oh yeah, that!” and this can in turn lead to new excitement for once-buried items.

Most people are pilers in some way.

Un-designing Our Designs
As UX designers (and, specifically, IAs), our usual obsession with prescribed hierarchy and order may not always be well-advised. Sometimes you need to take a hammer to hierarchy. Like Chris Noessel said in his 500 Programs into 1 Platform talk: “Sometimes visible hierarchies don’t work – teleportation between nodes can be better.”

We need to strive for looser, more organic connections so users can organize their workspace in the ways they see fit. They need to forge their own connections.

Mistakes & Mastery
It’s ok if users make mistakes along the way. They probably will anyway. So our aim should be to make the stakes of mistakes low. Any error should get swept painlessly into the learning curve.

In her Designing for Complexity talk, Nadine Schaeffer said that humans love going from novice to master. Flat simplicity doesn’t aid in mastery. We need to help users get excited about the journey, the flow. Our main job is to help them become masters.

Not Visual Clutter
Keep in mind everything I’ve said here applies not to the visual design of an interface, but the information design. The freedom I’ve described can exist in beautiful visual “containers.”

The Wild Streets of Office Life
Moving beyond our artifacts, Peter Merholz, in his Making Business Human presentation, explained how this obsession with order is like a furious whitewash over our work lives. Cubicles create quiet, solitary, and often unhappy workers. To make design teams more engaged and innovative, Merholz proposed fighting for workplaces modeled after Kindergarten classes. No cubes, but instead, things like:

  • Shared tables
  • Lots of objects of discovery (toys) laying around
  • Targeted play
  • Constant discussion.

These are the conditions that fostering innovative thinking.

Back at the Farm
This year, I won’t return to the office with a list of new techniques and methodologies. I’ll bring back very little that’s concrete (though there is some of that!).

Instead, I’ll confront to my colleagues with a persistent, collective challenge: Let’s not think about how we can make our products easier for our users. Instead, let’s work together to think about ways we can step back and foster controllable chaos. Let’s allow our users to become masters, not of the products that WE design, but of the products that THEY use.


26. March 2012 by Michael Seidel
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