The challenges and changes in digital design


Clamshell_iBook_G3   After 10 years of job title changes we come back to being designers, albeit ‘user experience’ designers for users and for people.

In 1999 it seemed to be so very new and we were on the same page, but now we see the different disciplines needing to embrace and unify before they fragment completely.

It needs to change soon, to move on with an admission of guilt for the turf wars, the inflated egos and finally gain some appreciation for each other’s craft.

Two points of view can be represented by Jesse James Garrett and his closing plenary last year at the IA Summit (memorable by his ‘we are all just UX designers’ statement) to the recent competition of defining IA ran by The Information Architecture Institute and promoted by Peter Morville. Garrett wants a return to us all being generalists whilst Morville sees a definite case for specialization. Their two books (both essential reads) should have given us the clue on their stand points years ago, in reality they have stayed true to their own beliefs. 



Are we all just expert generalists?
I think the term information architect although clumsy and a little grandiose is still the most accurate when placed alongside those who create the concepts of digital products. I may be different as I have been designing and drawing all my life, I have 13 years experience as an interaction designer, 10 as a web designer, 5 as a design manager and now 3 as an information architect. I have become an expert generalist but I would never have arrived at the last job role if I hadn’t had the other elements in my work experience. So I view the title of IA as something I have had to earn, and that can only come with experience, lots of mistakes and learning the hard way.

Looking at the effort we still spend on defining what we should or should not call ourselves seems unusual unless it is for the benefit of those new to the field. Though it does help clarify in the mind of the individual what IA is, we should be aware that clients do not share this fascination with titles but only the standard of the work we produce.

Take responsibility

bridge - US Army Korea - IMCOM

Image courtesy of
US Army Korea – IMCOM

  When complex projects, exhibiting wicked problems, go bad, often failures can be drawn against the lack of collaboration between parties as milestones were passed. To build and not respond to a blueprint would get any contractor fired from a construction site. Yet because we build objects that are intangible, ephemeral and in code, what we develop is a black box that only very few understand in it’s entirety. The majority of people including the client can only rely on trust and hope that what we eventually deliver fulfils their initial vision.

Our responsibility as IAs, when entrusted to build something that is required, is to be dedicated in seeing it through to the end. That is why it requires somebody who will complete what they start. This means testing the creations that you wireframe, adjusting them accordingly and ensuring the database and technical architecture do not inhibit performance or confuse users. But of course the working culture you operate in needs to be conducive for this to happen. We have this responsibility that must be followed in all our work.

For me this is what defines IA – it’s a commitment to delivering the best appropriate solution, without compromises that may affect the users. Bad design work in a visual sense is easy to fix but bad information or technical architecture is irreversible in a client’s timeline.

Having collaborative multiple-disciplinary teams is a way that a project can be delivered effectively on time and budget. Talking to each other regularly and being totally honest keeps this on track. Transparency will avert any disasters here but the conversations must occur at the right time. Whatever the process you use, all projects have time as their master. That is why timely intervention needs to happen regularly to steer and correct a project path. Those who have good time management skills tend to enjoy greater project success and certainly have happier clients. Meeting deadlines has to be the main priority when in the business of delivering solutions.

Document more

Documenting your creative process is important and rewarding because writing makes us aware of our mistakes. Our mistakes are to be encouraged in design, failure is an option if it occurs at the right point in the process. So iterate, stop only to test, discuss and verify. Share, contribute, collaborate and communicate more but admit any failings. 

We know our process and we have our tools but do we employ our minds to think differently before we even start to reach for a pen or boot up the machine? When you think about good technology it is enabling human beings to become better at being human. We should aim to enable that to happen through our work but do it in a way that is shared and publicly available. Only then through transparent practices will we grow as a collective of professionals.

The next ten years?  



The iPad and other touch devices represent the changing face of digital design. Not only in how it is a different interactive paradigm (the phones have given us a good foundation course on what not to do) but in how it will change the way we work together.

The  Internet changed how we communicated and has moved from the broadcast medium to an interactive social experience. However companies have been able to operate in much the same way. The web as an add-on to their normal business.

But when the medium is defined in the device, and the device is ubiquitous then those providing it’s content will organise themselves differently and will have to redefine their offering. UX people will be in increasing demand as will the development teams to put it all together. The iPad will change us culturally. It will reshape our workplace skillsets and our mindsets regarding digital and traditional media. It may even make using the Internet a physically social activity. If it does that then it really could be the saviour of published media and even help society.

The future is the designers shaping our interfaces, interactions and experiences. Those same designers will take the iPad and produce something that will justify Steve Job’s claims of it being a game changing device.  My hope is we produce interfaces that make our children understand the world better and quicker than we ever did. Finally create objects that use technology to help us live longer and happier and improve our world. Hopes aside, I believe it will be the start of a golden age for what we are now calling User Experience design.

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