To New UX Designers

In a recent survey for a research study at my masters program, I was asked, “What advice do you have for new interaction designers?” It’s funny how quickly the answer came to me.

You might never feel like you’re doing it right, but keep going, because someday someone is going to describe you as an integral part of the team.

Being Productive! Calendars in Illustrator

Lately I’ve been creating my own calendars in Illustrator to get complete control for when I create project timelines for new clients. The calendar below has sensitive information like the client name and name of the project motion blurred out for confidentiality purposes. Click it to see a bigger version.

The Illustrator file to create this calendar has… three layers?

There is the “calendar grid” layer with shading; that one is locked so I don’t accidentally move things around. Then there’s the “calendar headings” layer, also locked, which has the days of the week, the actual dates, the title of the document, and my company + client name. Finally, we have the “project details” layer, unlocked, which allows me to move around  deliverables and deadlines.


It took me a bit longer than I wanted to get the file set up, but now I can use it as a template for all future project timelines when I’m the project manager (this is my second time being UX + project lead/manager here at WD, it’s a good combo).

I really like designing experience maps, calendars, wireframes, etc in Illustrator. The end result is so sharp, and the PDFs are always crisp for clients to print out.

Interactions vs CHI, Oh My!

I’m in the process of absorbing everything I learned at Interactions 11 this past week, but the topic of this post is to address the surprising backlash against ACM’s SigCHI. I’m writing this post because I attended both conferences in the last year,  and feel like chatting about them.

For full disclaimer, I have a masters degree in human computer interaction design from a program that emphasizes the philosophical discourse of experience design, churning out graduates who choose to be user researchers, user experience designers, interaction designers, information architects, the list goes on. I submitted to CHI 2010 and was accepted as a work-in-progress for my masters thesis, an honor for me because I was a master’s candidate only. So I have ties with the CHI community both because of recent achievements and my background in computer engineering.

The first keynote speaker was Bill Verplank at Interactions 11, the man who caused the hoopla that set the tone for the remainder of the conference until Bruce Sterling gave his closing remarks. Verplank’s keynote was a rehash of what he usually talks about…he sketches his understanding of the system that we as designers need to understand: the relationships between people and what they think, feel, and do in the world. Search Verplank and you’ll see a youtube video that is basically the keynote he gave, but with one small difference.

In his keynote, Verplank said that he hadn’t been to CHI in years and wouldn’t recommend anyone go there anymore because the conference was rigid and outdated. Caught up in the moment, I’ll admit I laughed and maybe even cheered a little with the crowd. It wasn’t until later, where I was joking with someone, did his words sink in. He was saying CHI was the hairy old uncle that no one wanted to listen to anymore, because it had history and rules and the like.

Seems to me that an organization who has Genevieve Bell as its opening plenary, one that accepts a paper about empowering personal identity which discusses Steampunk, isn’t quite so old or hairy. I want to be Bell when I grow up. My sketchnotes on her plenary are filled with Bell-loving because she is pushing the CHI community to think about more than just computers. Cue fangirling now.

What is the point of this post? I’m trying to understand why Interactions has such a backlash against CHI. At its heart, I suspect it’s because Interactions is trying very hard not to be CHI. The whole “we’re better because we aren’t you” type thing that defined the relationship between America and the UK, historically-speaking. Interactions needs to assert its place in the conference world and unfortunately, Verplank took it in a negative direction that fed into latent culture clashes.

Here’s the thing: CHI probably isn’t a good venue for most of the people who attend Interactions, but not because CHI sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal education in interaction design. It all depends on your intent.

For most IxDA practitioners, CHI isn’t going to work. Not because it sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal, academic education in interaction design. They are primarily DIY and learn-as-you-go.

This is why I feel Interactions attendees won’t enjoy CHI. They aren’t used to academic presentations, which are, admittedly, often very dry. CHI presentations are content heavy; focused on methodologies, rigor, grounding their claims in user research. I think more than a couple of lightning talks at Interactions would have benefited from an academic asking the simple question of, “And why do you say that?” There were a number of claims made that had little support, except that the speaker had been chosen by the Interactions committee to speak.

The great thing about the closing remarks from Bruce Sterling was that he attended the entire conference, and had comments about all the major points made, giving tough love to everyone. He reminded everyone in the room that whether they liked it or not, they came from CHI. They would never escape CHI. Heck, in less than 20 years, they were going to be CHI. No one likes to be reminded that someday, they are going to be that hairy old uncle no one wants to listen to. People went nuts over his statements like interaction design was suffering from “user-Stockholm syndrome.” What does that mean? What can he mean?

I’m not sure either. The fact is, CHI and Interactions both bring beneficial thoughts to the world. It just depends whether you prefer a more academic- or industry-minded approach.

/end Reflection

Qualitative Interviewing = Adventure!

The first sentences in the book Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert and Irene Rubin book read:

Qualitative interviewing is a great adventure; every step of an interview brings new information and opens windows into the experiences of the people you meet. Qualitative interviewing is a way of finding out what others feel and think about their worlds.

Through qualitative interviews you can understand experiences and reconstruct events in which you did not participate. Through what you hear and learn, you can extend your intellectual and emotional reach across time, class, race, sex, and geographical divisions.

Qualitative interviewing builds on the conversational skills that you already have.

Bold emphasis is mine. I think I’m going to enjoy this book. Fingers crossed!

The User-Maker and the Designer

As I’ve been analyzing Steampunk-modified keyboards the last couple of days, and pulling together my analysis of the interviews I’ve conducted thus far, I began to use the term user-maker to describe the people for whom I am attempting to help designers, well, design for.Design research is a funny beast, in that my work, unlike my fellow interaction design masters candidate peers, is not for the end-user as traditionally known. My deliverable at the end of this semester, at the end of my graduate career, will be a design framework for designers who want to empower their users to do personal appropriation.

This is very important. I am looking at a particular subset of users, the user-maker as I’ve dubbed them, and I’m designing a framework for a particular subset of designers, the designer who wishes to empower their user-maker.

What, then, is a user-maker?

There are users, and then there are user-makers, or so I theorize. There are people who will buy a laptop, and essentially leave its casing as it was bought, and then there are people who add stickers and other casemods to claim the laptop for their own. Or better yet, there are people who do an entire casemod like Datamancer, where you have to turn a key to turn on the laptop.

A user-maker is not just a user of the designed artifact. A user-maker is not just a maker, who likes to take existing objects and alter them, or make something new from scratch. A user-maker is some combination of the two, and may not realize they are such. One of my interview subjects said that most Steampunk modders probably don’t see themselves as designers, even though they are designing. This makes sense to me; I don’t consider myself a mathematician though I can do complex math (simple math, however, continues to elude and frustrate me).

A user-maker sees objects, objects that most others see as finished pieces, as creative fodder. Most people, when looking at a keyboard, do not see their next project. The same goes, I suspect, for monitors, cell phones, laptops, etc. I would add desktop machines to the list, but I feel they are a separate category because of the history of hacking and modifying desktops to suit gamer/programmer/designer needs.

This is why I believe it’s important that we designers consider designing for disassembly. People modify and hack their desktop machines because they have the ability to do so without destroying the function of the machine. Well, unless something goes wrong. Technologies like cellphones, laptops, monitors, mice, they aren’t made for that kind of interaction.

Except for the user-maker, who sees where the plastic joins together and wonders, “hmm. If I take a flat-head screwdriver, I could probably do something cool with that.”

I’m not saying every product should have the potential to be disassembled so the user-maker can transform it into something else. But what if more products were designed with disassembly in mind?

What would happen to the way we consider and use technology, especially those of us (myself included) who enjoy bringing meaning to their lives and the objects in their lives by making?

Design Research as a Design Problem

I had an impromptu conversation with the indomitable Chad Camara the other day that left a mind bomb in my head. Well, not a mind bomb, per se, because he didn’t leave the thought and let it go off later, but rather was blunt about his point and it stuck with me. In any case, I thought I’d blog about it.

You see, Chad made the most excellent point that I am doing something out of the ordinary for design research. While doing my capstone, which is a research-themed capstone, and therefore is termed as design research, I have recognized I have two levels of users:

  1. Designers
  2. End users (i.e. the designer’s users)

I realized this for a number of reasons. I had an inkling about this from the start, which helped my preliminary research. As mentioned in a previous post, I unveiled the first draft of my design theory to members of my cohort and quickly realized it wasn’t tailored to them, but their supposed users. Since then, I have been careful to conduct end user interviews to help build my design guidelines while always keeping my user in mind, the designer. As mentioned previously, I want to create an infographic which brings relevance, meaning, a convincing argument to designers to use my design guidelines.

Bridging the Gap

This brings me back to Chad’s point: the method in which I am conducting my design research is helping bridge the gap between design academics and design practitioners. Typically, a design academic will do research about end users and artifacts, determine a theory, and present it to design practitioners as-is, believing the research will do the convincing.

This, as I’m sure we can all guess, rarely works with practitioners. Why? Because the design theory hasn’t been put into context. The theory isn’t meant to be digested and used by practitioners in a practical way, as a practitioner might expect. At least, that’s how it seems to me. The way my method differs from this traditional method of design academic -> design practitioner is that I recognize it isn’t a one-way street from academy to practice.

Designing Design Research

In fact,  I’m treating my research as if it were a design problem itself. I am treating my design guidelines/framework as if it were an artifact where I need to keep my user (design practitioners) in mind if I want them to use it. And I do. I think it’s so important that we, as design practitioners and academics, look at how we can empower our users to make artifacts their own. If I want design practitioners to take my guidelines seriously, it is imperative that I consider them as I create my guidelines. I need to design for my user.

This seems like common sense to me. If I’m going to design for my user, I’d like to bring my user in for “testing” to make sure I’m on the right track. This isn’t the case, however, with much of design research. It seems rare to me, and to Chad obviously, that design academics bring design practitioners in to poke holes in their theories.

I want designers to poke holes in my theory. I’d rather they do it now, while I’m in the midst of forming it. This way, I have a solid idea, rather than later, when I’m presenting to my cohort before graduation and look foolish for having not considered X, Y, or Z.

Again, this seems obvious to me. I am glad Chad reminded me that the obvious, the common sense, the everyday, is more often than not anything but for anyone who isn’t privy to the ever-churning thoughts in my head.

The Benefits of a Print Portfolio

So I made a print portfolio, which is really just a brochure of my web portfolio. A couple of people have asked me why I did this. Here goes!

  1. I love InDesign, and this showcases my print layout skills
  2. It’s like a mini-portfolio that employers can carry with them
  3. If I go to an interview, I can leave a sample of my portfolio behind
  4. If the tech doesn’t work somewhere, I still have something to show at an interview, along with my sketchbooks
  5. Not many people go through the trouble of making a print portfolio, and this is a classy way to stand out

I’ve been meaning to make one for over a year. Only after seeing Xuan Wang‘s awesome print portfolio the other day did I finally get the fire lit beneath me. I hope she makes her brochure available online, it was super nice from what I remember.

You can see my print brochure at my Lulu storefront:

If you’re interested in making your own print portfolio, take a look at these articles for a start…

  • This Web Designer Depot article is for online portfolios, but has good information for print as well
  • NubbyTwiglet has an awesome article about the importance of print portfolios for designers
  • And then there’s this one from PSD Tuts

Know of any others? Leave a comment and spread the love.

Binaebi and Advanced Ceramics

Last semester, I took a ceramics class for the first time. It was eye-opening, and helped me learn the one most important life lesson that I still struggle with: how to let go. I am detail-oriented, but can often still see the big picture, except when it comes to my own life. Ceramics is slowly curing me of that fault.

Today, in our first session of advanced ceramics, we were advised to think about why we were in the class. I thought the questions were applicable to why this class is important for me to take as an interaction/user experience designer. So here are my thoughts on the matter.

Why clay?

Clay is a mysterious, moody medium. You never really know how the clay will behave and feel each time you come into the studio. Much is the same for our users as interaction designers. We never know how our users will behave and feel each time they come to our designs, whether they be software, websites, interactive media, etc.

Why the human figure?

The specific topic of this advanced ceramics course is the human figurative sculpture, taught by Chris Boger (who is amazing, by the way). Now, ever since I began to teach myself to draw in elementary school, as well as the drawing and physiology classes I took in high school, I’ve always been interested in the human form. I’m especially interested in the human form as a means to communicate. For example, the way I’m sitting communicates something about my mood, how I feel about the people and situation surrounding me, etc. So much about our lives is about communication—or lack thereof. I’m interested in exploring that channel of interaction through the medium of clay because of the 3D qualities of a finished sculpture. You are able to circle it, analyze it from multiple angles and determine how its message changes depending on the way the light shifts.

We have been encouraged to be inspired by all types of human figures: Disney, anime, sports, politicians, dancers, the medicinal understanding of the human body, the psychological understanding, fashion, etc etc etc.

What do I hope to learn from advanced ceramics?

Woof. This is a tough question. I’ve gone through a lot of changes this past year. I don’t mean to be dramatic when I say 2009 was the worst year of my life, considering I’ve only lived 24 years. As such, I’d like to explore the idea of identity, personal meaning, morals, relationships, and other such abstract ideas through the human figure. What does it mean to love, and be loved? What does it mean to be autonomously happy? How can I possibly portray this through the human figure? Will my human figure be anatomically correct?

So, I suppose what I hope to learn from this class is my thoughts on how people communicate. It will be exploratory, therapeutic, and, most importantly, will allow me to get my hands dirty while working in a larger scale than I’m used to. My figures haven’t been larger than 10 inches tall. In this class, it’s suggested we work in a 3/4 or 1/2 life scale. That’s huge to me, and will be my biggest challenge. I’m looking forward to it.

Whistle While You Work

It seems to me that once you get into the thick of design philosophy, you can never escape designing.  However, I’m beginning to realize that while this graduate program certainly encourages and incites the designer in me to be a bit more active, Interaction-Designer!Binaebi was by no means silent in the first place.

In the Kitchen

Whenever my roommate leaves town she returns with the expectation that I’ve moved something. This is a semi-nervous tick of mine, completely intentional, but not malicious. I don’t like clutter, especially on kitchen counter tops. So when I open the kitchen cabinets and find empty spaces, I move the items from the counter top to the cabinet so the kitchen looks cleaner.

The thing is, I don’t remember to tell my roommate I’ve done this… and half the time it’s with her food in the first place. Thank goodness it’s something of a game to her. “Hmm… I wonder where Binaebi put the [fill in the blank] this time?” is a question she utters frequently, she admitted just the other day.

Now, this information concerned me. Was my shifting redesign of the kitchen’s organizational structure making her interaction with the kitchen frustrating due to my need for bare counter tops? Worse yet, was it hurting our interactions as roommates?

No, actually, because it turns out my shifting redesign has a pattern to it. I place all the baking items together on one shelf, the chips on another. All the Tupperware is in that bottom drawer. Unopened juice is placed in the fridge so the first glass will be cold. In the long run, it seems to work out for us, because my reorganization has an intuitive bent to it.

Which is good. The act of me rearranging items may not be time-efficient, but it is intuitively-efficient for when we need to find said items later.

Side note: This is an interesting concept I recently thought of… “time-efficient” vs “intuitively-efficient.” I should come back to this, see if it’s worth pursuing.

In the Arts

When I have any sort of emotional upheaval, I turn to my artistic roots and let the muses fly. I have, in the last month, upcycled two chairs that my roommate and I found by our dumpster. Solid wooden chairs with a screw or two missing, left for me to play with in the evenings after work.

The process is what makes these chairs amazing, not the end result. Though, I will admit, the chairs turned out pretty sweet. I sanded the chairs by hand, getting to know their shape, their feel, their character.

Argyle Chair: Finis!

“Argyle,” the first one screamed at me, “you must reupholster me in argyle.” When I bought the fabric, it was the end of the bolt, so I got three yards instead of one. Which was perfect, because the next day we found the second chair, and it was just as eager to have an argyle redressing.

I have also sculpted a little android, a paranoid little android who, despite his best intentions and careful planning, lost his heart and is absolutely befuddled by the realization. This project was a true design experiment, as I had no plans when I began to work the Sculpey clay. I simply rolled the clay into a ball, broke off a piece here and there while watching the movie Dogma, and by the end of the movie, I had a mini-Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Marvin the Paranoid Android loses his heart

But I’m never one to simply mimic. My Marvin needed something special, something which made him especially down. So I poked out his heart. For artistic purposes, of course.

Side note: I don’t know why Marvin lost his heart. He’s much too sad to go into the details with me.

I have turned to my music, listening to new and old favorites constantly, while psyching myself up to play the violin again after a three-month absence.

I have, for the first time in ten years, painted my toe nails. This may not be a big deal to you, but to me, every little bit of artistic expression counts. Like my Hot Topic earrings, which are currently little gray skulls. It’s the little things that make me laugh.

In Me

What am I trying to get at here? The fact is that all these little things…

  • Rearranging the kitchen
  • Reflecting on the interactions between my roommate and me
  • Upcycling a couple of discarded chairs
  • Sculpting a hilariously depressed robot
  • Preparing to practice violin again
  • Painting my toe nails
  • Buying and wearing goofy earrings

…these are things that point to me redesigning myself. Everything we do affects us positively, negatively, neutrally. When I began these projects, my motivation was lackluster at best. But as with anything, the more time I invested into the project, the more I cared about it. The more I cared, the more motivated I became. The higher my motivation, the more I poured my creativity into the project, the more I pushed myself to try something new.

The Moral of the Story

Interaction Design isn’t always just about man vs technology. Sometimes it’s about man vs man, or man vs self .*

How do we design and redesign ourselves? What goes into that decision-making process? And what can we learn from that process to help inform our design process, professionally?

I don’t know yet. It’s a work-in-progress.

*Borrowed from creative writing theory