Let's try this again, shall we?
So, this post is going to be a little out of order. When getting into the habit of blogging, it seems that the standard approach is to start with a “Hello! Let me tell you about myself and why I’m doing this!” post, followed by getting down to business. But I did that already way back in April, in a previous attempt to start writing again. And it didn’t really stick. So, this time on this website, I decided to skip the re-introduction, jump in and write.
That said, now that I’m here I’d feel remiss if I didn’t say something about why this blog exists. Fair warning: This is going to be long.
Welcome to what I’m calling Jeremy In Flight, my personal portfolio and blog. Its name is a reference to John H. White, a renowned photojournalist and teacher who has spent a career encouraging his students to “Keep in flight.” White has explained it like this: “I’m faithful to my purpose, my mission, my assignment, my work, my dreams. I stay focused on what I’m doing and what’s important. And I keep in flight — I spread my wings and do it.”
That phrase — “Keep in flight” — has stayed with me ever since I heard it from a photographer I met years ago. I wasn’t familiar with White, but that metaphor of his resonated. To me, keeping in flight meant that life was too short to spend it standing still. It meant always trying to be better. It meant avoiding complacency, being persistent, and knowing that even if you seemed hopelessly stuck, there was nothing you couldn’t fly out of.
This blog is for me, to help me stay in the air. William Zinsser said that if you can think clearly, you can write clearly. For my purposes, I am flipping that equation. I am writing to think. I imagine that Jeremy In Flight will be a space where I can work through my thoughts, engage with ideas, and grapple with questions. I also plan to write posts like my previous one that will break down UX designs and the decisions behind them to explore and understand what makes them better or worse. I have a lot to learn if I’m going to be a good UX designer, and I’m trying to climb that learning curve every day. Writing more frequently can only help.
My introduction to user experience
The urge to start blogging struck me earlier this year somewhere along I-70 while driving home from the Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore. On day one of IAS 2013, I still had doubts about what I was even doing there. After all, I wasn’t part of the IA or UX communities, I barely knew what they were, and I felt like the only outsider at the hotel.
What I quickly learned, though, was to embrace my inner redshirt. Strictly speaking, this meant I was a volunteer, easily identifiable by the red T-shirts all the volunteers were given. And naturally, this led to a running joke in reference to the “redshirts” of Star Trek, the throwaway characters doomed to quick deaths whenever there was a mission to some new alien planet. But setting aside the prospect of death by phaser, being called a “redshirt” felt fitting. My decision to attend IAS 2013 was indeed an exploratory mission to a world I knew very little about.
I spent a fair amount of time at the conference walking up to strangers and asking them, “What does it say on your business card? And what do you do?” What I discovered was people with different job titles who did the same work, and people who did different work with the same job titles. I met more than one young professional who told me they picked their own title, as their new employers asked, “What do you want to be called?” To say the least, this made it confusing to try wrapping my arms around any semblance of a unified profession. In their book “Pervasive Information Architecture,” Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati invoke the parable of the elephant and the blind men. Each man feels only a part of the creature (e.g. trunk, tusk, tail, leg) and so they disagree what it’s like. Of course, they’re all right, because it’s all those things.
In that book, UX is the elephant, and IA is one of its many parts. That was certainly the sense I got at IAS 2013, that information architecture was a practice within user experience. This was underscored at an evening poster session, where I saw a research initiative that conceptualized and divided the field into a series of columns and tiers. In the IA column were navigation, organization, and information relationships. UX design overlapped IA, and it included interaction design, content publishing, usability engineering, visual design, computer science, and even business analysis.
This was my introduction to UX, IA, IxD, etc., and regardless of how any single piece of “user experience” was perceived or defined, I left that conference impressed with the passion of its organizers, speakers, and attendees, and I began to understand why the work these people were doing was relevant, important, and right up my alley.
What this journey into UX means to me
A lot has happened in my life professionally since that conference essentially introduced me to UX design. I had an amazing summer internship with an education startup company, where for the first time I had to chance to actually *do* information architecture and content strategy. I left a part-time job in marketing to focus on my career choices and my last semester of graduate school. I started to get involved with Pittsburgh’s tech community, attending meetups and getting to know some really friendly, helpful, fantastic people. And I participated in Startup Weekend, a break-neck project to hatch and develop a business idea over the course of 54 hours, which ended with me pitching my team’s product in front of an audience of about 150 investors and startup enthusiasts.
And after all of that, I am heartened to look back at my 7-month-old notes from the Information Architecture Summit and feel I’m going in the right direction.
To a great extent, I’m still trying to make sense of UX ... but who isn’t? At IAS 2013, Bob Royce and Dan Klyn gave this thought-provoking talk about “finding a home” for IA. It was about the difference between a “boundary set” and a “center set.” Boundary sets are defined by their borders and whether you’re on the inside or the outside. Political parties, sports fans, and professional fields all think of themselves this way. Meanwhile, a center set defines a group of people by the common thing they’re all focused around. One person can be close to the core and another far away, but they still share that middle ground. For Royce and Klyn, the argument was that information architecture needed to be more of a center set, with “meaning” in the middle.
As I journey further into UX, IA, IxD, CS, et al., I’ve got my own sense of what’s in the center set that brings these communities of practice together. I see a core with four principles: Complexity, Context, Bridging, and Compassion.
If there’s one word that I’ve continually encountered since IAS 2013, it’s complexity. It’s even become part of my credo, that good design is about making complex things uncomplicated.
In a dictionary sense, complex and complicated have nearly the same meaning: difficult to understand, explain, or solve; being made up of intricately interrelated parts. But in his talk about IA in a post-digital world, Andrea Resmini made a distinction that struck me. You might buy some furniture and open the instructions to find a daunting series of steps to assemble all the bits and pieces. This is complicated:
But this, a city with all its streets and lights and signals and people and movement, is complex:
I gathered that for Resmini the difference had to do with the degree of unpredictability. No matter how complicated those Ikea instructions can get, you can know with certainty how all the parts behave, how each piece relates to another, and what will happen when you put the them together a certain way. Complexities lack that predictability. If we want to understand them, we need more information about them, and even then, when we think we really know what makes them tick, they may still behave in ways that are unexpected or difficult to explain.
Human decision-making is complex. Networks are complex. Information environments, human-computer interactions, cross-channel experiences ... the list goes on. Designing for that complexity so people can make great things happen and do what they want to accomplish within it, that’s where my UX lives.
I’m just going to say this: By itself, information is almost never enough to create change. Context — the right context — is the other vital ingredient. Without it, your information is just noise.
Another wonderful speaker at IAS 2013 was Karen McGrane, and it was from her that I first heard anybody talk about information architecture in particular and UX in general as a bridge. Actually, this theme was also inherent (although less explicit) in what the Bob Royce and Dan Klyn had to say about IAs, that they could be unifiers of meaning and structure, working from a messy but crucial middle ground. In McGrane’s keynote, the bridge she envisioned was between content and interaction design, a connection between “words” and the “look and feel” of a design.
Of course, that’s all very high-concept, but “UXers as bridge builders” has come up again and again in my conversations with practitioners, and not in a merely theoretical way. Just the other week, I had an opportunity to pick the brain of a UX director at a Pittsburgh agency, and he spoke at length about how much of his time is spent acting as bridge between teams of developers and business strategists, between clients and account managers, between individuals and ideas.
My UX means being a cohesive force, and being not only comfortable but also adept at reaching across a breadth of domains, stakeholders, and complexities.
Karen McGrane again — she was the first person I heard use the word “empathy” in the context of UX. While user-centric design has become standard practice, McGrane said it was important to remember that putting users first wasn’t necessarily obvious or automatic, that it involves effort and empathy not only for users but also for your clients, who are just as caught up in a sea change of mobile devices and emerging technologies.
This made perfect sense, but I don’t think it hit home for me until months later, while listening to storyteller Kelly Flanagan Dee at a Moth mainstage event in Pittsburgh. While sharing a story involving trouble she had with a neighbor some years ago, Dee said something about compassion that absolutely struck me. In effect, she said this: Compassion means realizing you are a passing character in other people’s lives, and that their stories go on without you. And being compassionate means wanting someone else’s story to be better because you were part of it, even if just for a little while.
We’re all ultimately alone in our thoughts and experiences, our minds giving shape to narratives such that all 7 billion people on Earth are the central characters in their own real-time movies. It’s challenging to get out of your own head, to be empathetic and really see the world from someone else’s point of view. But that’s exactly the effort McGrane was talking about, and any UX design worth its salt demands nothing less.
As I said approximately 1,500 words ago, I have a lot to learn if I’m going to be a good UX designer ... but it all feels far less daunting when I think about this “center set” that I’m discovering. Why? Because (a) it’s fascinating, and (b) I believe in those principles and what it means to engage with great challenges of complexity, context, bridging, and compassion. I pivoted away from daily news because increasingly I felt frustrated with journalism’s inability to encourage and stand up for real, tangible progress. Karl Fast — an information architect and professor — said that UX isn’t about right vs. wrong; it’s about better vs. worse. A champion of progress, of making things better — that’s the kind of designer I want to be. And this is where it starts. Keeping in flight