Surely there is nothing more superfluous and redundant than another photo-sharing app. But I had an idea for one that would be based primarily on a swipe gesture, so here it is in all senses of the phrase “for what it’s worth.”
(I’m going to build out the ideas for the talk I’m giving in April here. This post will be incomplete and changing.)
(tl;dr: There are many stories in design, first the stories a team tells each other about what they want to make, then the stories describing what to make, then the story an audience or users experience. Stories are best created as brutally simple pieces of of writing. Designers are in a great position to make stories to help a team and audience communicate, and make good things.)
Creating an experience is closely tied to telling a good story. The pervasive nature of “experience design” often tends towards an abstract, complex, interconnected plan. But what’s needed instead is really just a compelling, simple story. A story that connects with a few emotional needs can be turned into many things; lunchtime conversation, a book, a product, a system, a service.
When a person or a team sets out to build something, staying focused on what’s important is hard.
Stories are naturally social, and tend towards simplicity. Keeping a story in mind is a very useful tool for making things good.
Sometimes people spend time on exercises for team alignment, like mission/strategy/objectives. Or they come up with a tagline for a product. A story is neither one of these things. It’s not messaging, it is the thing itself. A story can help with other things, but it’s more essential.
Many people have done wonderful work on story-telling. It’s an old, durable thing people do. Aristotle nailed it a long time ago when he said that telling a meaningful story is comprised of “events that come upon us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The …wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.”
Ernest Hemmingway, writing about writing his stories, says that his work was to set down “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.”
Kevin Cheng, who has been working as an interaction designer for many years, fully exploits the abilities of a clear story in his designs. He even wrote a great book about it, See What I Mean. Some other places you’ll find great story techniques:
- Common Craft makes beautiful stories that focus on explaining products
- TED Talks follow a shared structure that tells a personal story about an idea
- Storyboarding is a tool that predates digital design entirely. It focuses on design as preparation, as in films shot classically. But as a technique for quickly capturing a narrative, it works well.
- Storytelling for User Experience (Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks)
- “Notes on Design Practice: Stories and Prototypes as Catalysts for Communication,” Tom Erickson, in Scenario-Based Design: Envisioning Work and Technology in System Development, edited by John Carroll
- Usability Engineering: Scenario-Based Development of Human Computer Interaction, John Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson
- Software for Use by Larry Constantine & Lucy Lockwood
- User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, JoAnn Hackos and Janice (Ginny) Redish
- AIGA, An Ethnography Primer
So, stories are great. But is story just another deliverable? Another abstraction that designers do and hand over to others? It’s useful in that way, but I would say no. The world is littered with the work of smart and talented designers that doesn’t work to make the end product good.
The app development company 37Signals eschews design deliverables of all kinds. They say, for example, “We don’t use personas. We use ourselves.” In an interview about process, Ryan Singer is asked about various UX deliverables, and says that “all that stuff is terrible.” I agree with Ryan, but think he misses the point of these documents. They aren’t there so much to take the place of connecting with the audience/users of a product as they are to help a team have a shared understanding. It’s great that 37Signals has none of these problems (they are a small group that’s used to working together, and they design things for their own use), but their experience is the exception not the rule. Most of us live in a world where we have to communicate and work with other skilled people, and connect what our team does to an audience or users’ needs, and stories are useful for that.
The process of building a shared understanding (between people making something, and between them and the rest of the world), is making a story. It is as much about figuring out how to work with a small group as it is designing something. Even when a team is just one person, who that person is and why they make what they make is fundamental (thus my fascination with author photos on books). Why a team comes together, what their roles are, and how committed they are to each other has as much to do with the story of making something as any fancy design.
So the first story to work on is the story of the team. Then, that story has to be connected to the story that people (the audience, the users) will see. Designers are in a uniquely good place to tell these stories, and connect them.
So what does that actually mean in practice? I think it means doing less deliverable, and more editing. It means writing; short, clear writing, not diagrams or other visuals. Some dictums from a book about screenwriting (Writing in Pictures, Joseph McBride) are helpful:
- “Every story makes a promise for an audience”
- “Don’t tell us what people are thinking or feeling or remembering unless you can show it. Don’t write what we can’t see or hear.”
- “Remove everything you can: ruthlessly focus on clarity.”
- “Write a simple arc. Don’t write an epic.”
All this is to say that stories (whether they are told in an instant-message window, a handwritten note, a sketch on a whiteboard, or an elaborate powerpoint presentation) should be the absolute minimum needed to communicate an idea (but no less).
Examples of stories for a team
Examples of stories for a piece or product
Examples of stories for an audience or users
My mom, Jacqueline Clemens, was born on this day in 1941, in Morristown, New Jersey. Her family had great success, and even glamor. Though she was a very beautiful girl, she was never comfortable being the princess that her mother wanted her to be. She was more of a tomboy. She never talked much about the trappings of being well off as a young girl. Instead, she was proud of the prizes she won in horseback riding and swimming (at camp), and the ways she found to live independently.
Her favorite radio show when she was a kid was “Sky King,” about a rancher who flew a small plane around the west, stopping outlaws and helping people in trouble. Mom especially liked the Penny character, the Sky King’s niece, who he taught to fly in the show (she talked about how she thought it would be great to fly a plane around the west and take care of people too, as a practitioner).
Mom loved adventurous girls, and believes that streak in her came from her grandmother, Victoria Coelho da Rocha. Her “Maman” was a Portuguese-Jewish transplant to Brazil, whose family once owned choice real estate in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Mom told a story of having an adventure with her when, on a visit to New York when Mom was 7 or 8, she booked them into a hotel room in Manhattan. Spying some coins on the roof of a building outside the hotel window, Maman sent Jackie out to gather them (tethered to the room by sheets tied together).
In 1958, when she was 17, she sailed from New York on a “grand tour” of Europe with her brother and parents, an especially luxurious thing to do then. She loved running around the ship on her own, and had some romance with the son of the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Mahmoud Shabandar. They must have been a very pretty couple to watch dance. After they returned, Mom visited him at Harvard to dance with him again at the Winter Formal.
She went off to college at the University of California at Berkeley. She studied sociology, but most of all she joined in the huge cultural change that was happening right then and there, when young people got together and decided to do things their own way. She sat-in on the steps of Sproul Hall, and heard Mario Savio speak about the injustices of the U.S. social order that needed fixing.
She and my father were members of the Students for a Democratic Society, the seminal student organization of the 1960s. They danced with students from all over the world at the University’s International House, and talked about liberation theology at the Catholic Newman Center in Berkeley. They got married, very conscious of the politics and history of that, and idealistically wanting very much to be equals. They were at the very center of many changes that made this country a better place.
Mom had me in 1968, in Princeton, New Jersey, and in 1969 she and dad joined the Peace Corps. They packed up their comfortable American life and set off for an adventure with a tiny baby.
In Chile, she worked counseling women about family planning, while my father taught math. She said she loved it there, because it taught her about “what was really important, and what was not.” She loved being a mother, and said she surprised herself with how well it came to her. Once, when she was rushing out the door with me in one arm and the the keys Dad forgot in the other, she tripped and fell. She said she twisted as she hit the ground so she cushioned me from the fall, then popped up again holding out the keys. She said, “I have no idea how I did that!”
She told how she enjoyed the life of a thrifty volunteer. She made her own baby food by grinding up vegetables with a hand-cranked machine. She sent me to preschool with a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and string that she re-used over and over again. On their second assignment to Chile, the socialist government was ousted by the U.S., and the country was unstable. They decided to leave finally, but found that they did not have any way to get to the airport; they had no gas for their tiny Citroen car, and transit wasn’t running. So they sold a few things including my toy tractor to a neighbor for some gasoline, leaving the car at the airport.
In 1974, they had my brother Michael in New York City, where they lived in Columbia faculty housing on Riverside Drive. Mom painted murals of trees and fruit in the sterile apartment kitchen, collected rain water in a bucket, and built a table herself from hardwood, fastened with dowels. She had a dog named Ché. She fed her sons Challah bread, yoghurt, and wheat germ, no sugar.
Once, she was almost mugged while walking with me and Michael, running away holding on to us tightly. Mom wanted to live in a place closer to nature, and in 1978, we all left New York for Utah. Though their marriage ended, Mom and Dad made a good home for their sons there.
In typical fashion, Mom took on going back to school and making her own life in a determined and careful way. She became a Registered Nurse, then later a Nurse Practitioner. She worked as a ward nurse, a visiting nurse, an ER nurse, and finally decided to specialize in Oncological nursing. She was devoted to caring for her patients, and talked about how absolute it was for her to put her patients needs and care above everything else. This was not just a platitude for her, it was an imperative that I heard her discuss many times with her friends and on the phone with colleagues, sorting through some ambiguous circumstances that needed a second opinion. She was a member of the Newman Center in Utah, and went on several retreats in the south-western desert to build her Catholic faith.
At the Veterans Administration hospital in Salt Lake City, she worked with an oncologist named Grant Harrer. She told me a story about making a report to him on a patient with a small and irrelevant mistake about the patient’s shirt. He had her re-do it, asking her to make it “as perfect as you possibly can”; she said he taught her to be better and even more careful than before. She was extremely lucky to also work with a doctor named Kirk Lund. Later, Kirk became her doctor in Spokane, when she was diagnosed with brain cancer 22 years afterwards.
After her son Ben left home, she worked as an oncology nurse in Montana for a clinic started by Dr. Harrer. Her son Michael was very academically strong, and she helped him to become a star at his high school and apply to extremely competitive colleges. He chose the California Institute of Technology, and she supported him through taking on that rigorous challenge. She went to work at an advanced oncology care facility (doing bone marrow transplants for children) in Louisville, Kentucky. She helped her son Ben to chose to pursue a degree in fine art (she was very supportive of a choice that did not have much practical value but that she could tell was what he wanted).
She then chose to become a general care clinician in Whitefish, Montana, working at a small office with two other doctors caring for whatever patients needed. She dealt with all kinds of things, from poor people who hadn’t seen a doctor in years to people whose life she saved with by diagnosing a dangerous condition via an eye exam. She had a collection of hundreds of grateful letters from the people she helped, and strong fans among the local doctors as someone who did the absolute best job she could with the care of everyone she saw.
She started then to get interested in training dogs. She had raised two Shetland Sheepdogs in Utah, and started to become serious with a new Shelty, Bonnie. She did Obedience, then Agility, then Tracking. Her dogs were internationally ranked and she competed in hundreds of trials and rallies. She earned Master Agility Champion with her dog Rosie. She literally had hundreds of ribbons, which lined the walls of her house (upstairs and downstairs). She truly loved her dogs, and said that her love and bond with them was what made them do so well. She hated when she saw anyone yelling at a dog, as she religiously practiced positive reinforcement as the only way she trained.
She raised and trained her dogs to many titles.
- Bonnie (Obediance Trial Champion)
- Nickles (North American Dog Agility Council Agility Trial Champion, Obediance Trial Champion, Agility Excellent, Open Jumpers With Weaves Preferred, Agility Dog of Canada, Agility Dog I, and Scent Hurdle Dog Excellent)
- Brio (Obediance Trial Champion, Master Agility Excellent, Excellent Jumper with Weaves, Agility Champion, Novice Fast, Elite Agility, Junior Handler, Rally Excellent, Therapy Service Dog, Delta Society Pet Partner)
- Raisin (Companion Dog Excellent, Master Agility Excellent, Master Agility with Jumping Excellent, Elite Agility Certificate, Rally Novice, Novice Fast)
- Luke (Open Agility, Novice Agility Jumper, Agility Novice, Agility Gambers Novice, Novice Agility Certificate, Novice Jumper, Herding Capability Tested)
- Crispy (Companion Dog)
When she retired from practice, she moved to Spokane to be closer to dog events. She spent a great deal of time on the road with four to five dogs, going all over the northwest and Canada. She was still new in Spokane, so she asked her neighbor Carol Klover to take her to the doctor one day, as she had been having some troubles. She had a brain tumor, a Glioblastoma Multiforme, the same cancer that killed Ted Kennedy in the space of a year. When she was diagnosed she was afraid, but simply faced it with determination to do the things she wanted to somehow.
Immediately after she woke up from surgery, having had a 6-centimeter mass removed and still having trouble talking and moving, she told us directly: “don’t put anything off.” If there was something we wanted to do, do it right now. About two weeks afterwards, she was up, moving stiffly but quickly, running with her dogs in her back yard.
She had multiple courses of radiation and many courses of chemotherapy, but never complained. She simply kept at it, doing as much of the things she could do as she possibly could. Her friends at the dog club (particularly Matt Kochel) helped her travel to and compete in dog events even when she was weak or confused, and she was very grateful for their sweetness and generosity.
As Mom struggled against the tumor’s progress, Carol and Mom became friends, and Carol helped mom keep living the way she wanted too at her house. She had accidents, and Carol saved her life four times. Dr. Kirk Lund gave her extremely good care, treating her as a friend and as a colleague when making scary decisions. When she needed more help, her caretakers made it possible for her to live independently for as long as possible, particularly Marianne Kincaid, but also Leah Colborn and Kayla Knicely. Michael and I are extremely grateful to Kirk, Marianne and Carol for the above-and-beyond kindness and generosity they showed our mother through the exhausting, horrible struggle against that disgusting cancer.
Mom died peacefully and comfortably, early in the morning on Sunday, November 4th, 2012. It was not easy for her to let go of life, as she was always determined to get what she wanted from it. I am sure there is more she wanted to do. She was luckier in her sickness than many other people though, and got to do much that she wanted. She was a brave, strong, and utterly decent person, and we will miss her very much.
Today I remembered a part of a poem that I am fairly sure she must have showed me when I was a kid, by Pablo Neruda (I don’t know how else I would have known about it):
Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.
[Note: I have tried to distill a set of ideas about the kind of design that I am most used to doing. Much of these ideas are based on other smarter people's work. This is more of an exercise in putting down what makes sense to me than advocating for a particular approach, which depends, etc.]
Experience design is an intersection between technical expertise and human needs. It connects what people want, what is emotionally meaningful to them, and what is technically elegant.
Experience design is not a separate process, deliverable, or strategy. It connects a development team to users, through mutual alignment, prototyping, testing, and iteration.
An outline of a process for Experience Design…
First: alignment of team. Product strategy and ideation between development and product, before sprints. Whiteboard sketches, mocks and an overall vision. Conscious decision not to discuss product direction/strategy in sprint. Discipline of team to be able to realign between sprints (this is role of product).
Next: continuous, close collaboration. Design commits to deliver (or collaborate on) presentation code stories. QA, design, and engineering write test cases up front. Interactive prototypes (HTML, or whatever works), not mocks or wireframes. Engineers stub-out models and rough views in collaboration with design.
Finally: finished design. Design pattern library provides basic building blocks for working presentation code. Developers and design collaborate on trying out test cases and iterating on interaction. Design delivers presentation code towards end of sprint.
After almost a thousand years of trying it out, I think it’s safe to say that the book as a way of publishing things is a success. Yet all the things that make books work are being abandoned in the latest tool to make ebooks.
A “book” still means something made out of paper-like material; the word origin refers to a slab of beechwood or (in the case of the latin word codex), bound leaves of some kind. The idea of printing being involved is not at the core of what a book is, and to have the object is to have access to the knowledge there. Ebooks are any kind of publication produced for electronic reading; again, what produced the content is not at the core of what an ebook is.
So what is basic to being booklike? I’d suggest it’s two things: some kind of package for publishing, and one that belongs to the reader. A book and an ebook are more alike than they are different from this perspective, and it’s a recent development that they have diverged. Because of the success of Amazon and other companies in creating closed systems for people to buy and read ebooks, suddenly the idea of a book is contingent on a particular company giving a key to a locked box, etc.
And now, Apple’s new iBooks Author program requires publishing a book in one proprietary format and for sale on one store, in such a way that can only be read on one kind of device. A truly faustian bargain.
The marketing for iBooks Author says it “allows anyone to create …just about any kind of book for iPad,” but given that what it actually makes is very far from the actual definition of a book (or even an ebook for that matter), I don’t think it’s accurate to say that. It’s something, maybe more like an old-school CD-ROM. It’s just not a book.
A lot has changed in the past year in the ebook world; the ePub format has gained a lot of interest and activity as an open format. Open standards are, of course, the reason that the Web has had its spectacular growth and vibrancy as a new medium, so you’d think that the creators of a new reader device would see which way the curve of history is going. I had no idea what to expect from the new nook color, but I did hope that (as an android device) it might be slightly more open than other things on the market.
And, in fact, it is. Very slightly. It is news that you can actually go to a Web site and download an ePub (that is not copy-protected) and read it. The browser (a version of Chrome, included in Google Android) is good enough to be useful. The touch screen is a little balky but not nearly as bad as the first nook.
However, the nook color still makes it hard to get and read books in any other way than the B&N store. To download non B&N books and read them, I can copy them to the nook over USB, but if I download them over the browser they only appear in the “my files” part, not in “my books.” If I download an ePub from a Web site via the nook Web browser, it is placed in the “my downloads” directory. I can go and open it there on the nook, but since I have no way to move files on the nook itself, the only way I can make it appear in the nook “library” is a workaround. That is, connect the nook to a computer, move the ePub file from the “my downloads” to “my books” directory; and only then (after a refresh button-press on the nook) it shows up in the nook “library.”
The nook mounts as a regular mass-storage device, similar to a Kindle, but allows me to see the entire document tree (including the DRM’d ePubs). This is more transparent than an iPad/iPhone at least, but that doesn’t mean I can just rearrange files myself in anything other than the “my files” directory. Maddeningly, if I add or move files to the B&N directory, it doesn’t show them — only the DRM’d files are recognized. And, of course, I can’t get applications from the Android Market for any price (that much I expected).
The small roadblocks that the nook color places in the way of getting and reading non DRM’d files feel petty and stupid. For the price ($250) it can’t be getting subsidized by B&N, so why the desperation? So much work must have gone into ensuring that I can use the device in only one way; if only B&N had just let it be a decently-sized android device in that way only (even sans-apps). At some point someone will make the equivalent of an iPod Touch with Android software that is tied to a good content store (but is a flexible device that I can geek out with). I am surprised that (given the market dominance of the iPod) someone hasn’t.
Over the last twenty-five years, I went to school to be an artist, abandoned that, became a designer, married, and had a daughter. After many life changes, I think about almost everything differently. But I still have this incoherent desire to make pictures, not much different (and not much more understood by me) than when I was much younger. Then, I thought that people make things for their own sake, because they are beautiful or some part of the truth. I am not sure about that anymore. There are many much more important things to me now, but nothing more mysterious than that (despite only extremely sporadic and privately satisfying pictures) I keep wanting to do it. It could be just my own personal hang-up. At this point, I want more to understand this drive than do anything meaningful with it!
I’m interested in photography, since it has some of this same mystery. In contrast to painting, sculpture, or even film, millions of people take photos meaningfully. Photographs can be completely mundane for even close family, or epic and affecting to anyone, and the difference is usually pretty ellusive. After I took a picture of a tricycle I saw a similar picture of a tricycle by William Eggleston, but there’s no meaningful relationship between the images (other than to point out just how great he is). There are plenty of good images in the world, more are not needed. What is meaningful, then? Why do it?
So, I read Photography After Frank, by Philip Gefter, and Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams, to see if there was some vocabulary people use to write about this and how to make sense of it. They are both good books with strong ideas and clear thinking.
Gefter was the front-page picture editor for The New York Times and a critic for that newspaper. He surveys a lot of recent good photos and motives behind them. Usefully, he offers themes like “the document,” “staged documentation,” “photojournalism,” “portraits”, “collections,” and “the marketplace.” He offers a way to anchor and understand the work of good artists. For example, he writes that in
…the 1980s the photograph underwent a rigorous, necessary, and unforgiving examination by postmodern artists and critics. They challenged its fidelity to fact, its role in constructing social realities, its validity as a form of art, — to the point where straight documentary photography seemed conventional, even retrograde.
I can see that in the edgy Cindy Sherman, subversive Sherrie Levine, and the raw Nan Goldin, all of whom were newly-made art-world stars when I was in school. But this way of thinking seems to say that these artists made images because they were engaged in some kind of cognitive research project (collaborating in teams!), however. Having (very briefly) met two of these people and seen all three speak a number of times, I don’t believe anything like that motivated them. They all seemed very self-absorbed and chaotic (but appeallingly vulnerable and human). In one case their best description of their method was to “struggle out from under my fear of being disgusting” (I believe this was Nan Goldin at the New School, but I can’t find a reference for it). Even though the cultural effect of their work might be formal, their work was not pursued logically or methodically. The critical/art history approach doesn’t help me.
Adams’ book is much more personal about the ‘why’ in photography, divided into sections on “what can help” (“…humor, teaching, money, dogs”), “examples of success,” and “working conditions.” He speaks as someone who has spent many hours with the desire to make images and struggling with the results. Speaking of “living in several landscapes,” he mentions living “in hope” but mostly of “a simple, generic” place, a
country crossroad on the high plains. There are thousands to choose from. Often there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all–just two roads, four fields, and sky. I feel foolish to have stoopped, but small things can become important– a lark or a mailbox or sunflowers. And if I wait I may see the architecture– the roads, the fields, the sky. [...] We might find there a balance of form and openness… It would be the world as we had hoped, and we would recognize it together.
This is an appealling way of seeing, tying together the act of taking pictures with two people (him and you, to whom he’s giving a direct invitation) experiencing familiar things with new appreciation. This feels to me like the Buddhist direction, where the practice and living with humility is more important than the results of the activity. This may in fact be a good way to live, but it doesn’t answer the question of ‘why’ (even if it is a good side-step of that) for me.
There is something visceral and silent about taking pictures. Analysis is useful for understanding ‘why not,’ but not why. After abandoning the wish for importance, insight, understanding, beauty, or connection, why does the drive stick around? It seems too easy to just say that the meaning of making pictures is the work itself.