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Surviving Design Projects (Dan’s little distraction)

September 1, 2011

The quick version

Surviving Design Projects is a collection of ideas about managing conflict in creative environments. For now, it’s a blog that deals with three things: Situations — the circumstances that lead to conflict. Traits — the aspects of designers’ personalities that may contribute to or help them solve conflict. Patterns — techniques for addressing conflict.

Why conflict management?

The first edition of my book Communicating Design includes some thoughts on how to present and use design artifacts — sharing a site map with the programmers, for example. The second edition expanded on this, suggesting a repeatable, adaptable outline for leading discussions about design. From the outset, I knew that the artifact in itself was small consequence to the success of the design project. Instead, it was how the designer used the artifact to advance the project.

Advancing the project is more than just hitting milestones. It’s soliciting feedback and validatation. It’s helping the project team understand implications. it’s ironing out details in working sessions. In short, it’s getting everyone not just behind the design concept, but the approach to design as well. This ongoing alignment effort is where conflict is incubated. No team is ever perfectly aligned, and that’s where conflict emerges.

I’ve facilitated dozens of workshops on deliverables, and similar conclusions emerged from every one. Workshop participants report that their greatest challenges aren’t solving design problems or representing their ideas through artifacts. Instead, design teams the world over struggle to deal with the conflict that arises in these endeavors. They mention lack of engagement, or stepping on each others’ toes, or working at cross purposes, or general creative differences. They mention confronting demanding bosses and unreasonable clients. They roll their eyes remembering that one person who caused so much trouble.

Through these discussions about creating design artifacts, I learned that my initial efforts to provide a framework for talking about them wasn’t enough.

So, what have you been doing?

For the last several years, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, asking myself questions like:

Why is there conflict on design projects?
What are the different kinds of conflict on design projects?
What would it take to ensure a conflict-free project?
Are successful projects always conflict-free?
What techniques do we use to moderate conflict?
How can designers be more self-aware?

I’ve done a few things in the public eye on this topic:

  • Co-facilitated a workshop with Chris on Difficult Conversations
  • Presented some ideas on how to deal with difficult situations at the Web App Summit and at a NYC UPA event
  • Wrote a few blog posts on self-awareness
  • Presented a virtual seminar entitled Surviving Design Projects for UIE

Throughout this thought process, I sought a way to make the topic practical. Ultimately, collecting sob stories about challenging projects is cathartic but otherwise irrelevant to my day-to-day work. About a year ago, shortly after I finished the second edition of Communicating Design, I was reviewing some old notes and realized that I could capture conflict management techniques as patterns.

Patterns, situations, and traits

A pattern in interface design is a starting point solution for a typical problem. There might be a pattern, for example, for the log-in process, describing the basic elements of the interface and the flow of the interaction. Likewise, conflict management patterns provide simple starting points for approaching a difficult situation. These patterns suggest behaviors or things to say to deflate or redirect or avoid the conflict. Here’s an example:

Pattern: What’s your first step?

Ask colleagues what their immediate activity will be upon receiving a new assignment.

Use when:

  • Employing a new methodology or technique, and you’re not sure how your team will proceed.
  • Team members can’t offer specific answers about how they’ll contribute to the overall project or how they’ll address the project’s objectives.

Like design patterns, conflict management patterns have a brief description and a “use when,” which defines appropriate circumstances for trying the pattern. Upon developing them further, I’m confident I’ll identify other aspects I can use to structure them further. Many of these patterns are variations on some big themes like “listen better” or “start small”.

It was easy to identify other elements of conflict management — situations and traits. Situations are circumstances in which someone’s behavior is threatening to derail the project. I’ve also been thinking about how designers can be more self-aware — the traits that define our style of participation and contribution to design projects.

Where are you now?

These three aspects of conflict management — situations, patterns, traits — are described in my new blog Surviving Design Projects. At this point, I’m using it as a dumping ground to capture these individual elements.

What’s missing is the connections between them: how patterns apply to different situations, how traits may cause or avoid situations, and how patterns might challenge designers with particular traits. For each situation, I could point to half a dozen patterns that would help deal with those circumstances. For each pattern, I could tell a story about how it was used successfully. For each trait, I could talk about how different designers exhibit the trait differently.

What’s next?

To be totally transparent, I’d like to turn this into a book — a handbook on dealing with conflict in creative environments. Threaded with stories about how designers and design teams face conflict every day as a natural part of the process, the book would help them deal with this ongoing tension.

For now, I’m content to mould the bricks, but if you’re a publisher and think this is remotely interesting, please drop me a line.


Workshop: A visual approach to planning web sites

September 22, 2010

Join me in October and November for two workshops I’ll be leading the DC area. Each is a half-day on a Friday afternoon (when nothing good ever happens anyway) and we’ll dig into flow charts, site maps, and concept models–diagrams essential for planning web sites.

Here’s what we’ll talk about:

  • How to create beautiful and effective diagrams describing the underlying structure of web sites.
  • How to use those diagrams in planning web projects and how pictures can make the process more efficient.
  • How to “level-up” your skills in flow charting and site mapping.
  • How to walk through these diagrams with clients and colleagues.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • A four-hour workshop in a comfortable training room in the heart of downtown Bethesda (October) or DC (November).
  • A workbook chock full of examples.
  • A chance to win a copy of the 2nd edition of Communicating Design.

The workshops are $299 each, but with early bird pricing you can save 15%!

Visit to learn more.

The Fun of Understanding

September 12, 2010

My son likes watching me play Scrabble on iPad. At some point between waking up and finishing breakfast every morning he says, “Let’s see what’s going on with Words with Friends,” which is the name of the Scrabble app. (He knows my opponents by their screennames.) The other day, he opened up the app and saw I’d played GEEK (on a double-word score for 20 points!) and asked me what it meant.

It took a moment. Geek is a semantic challenge, a modern word with multiple meanings. Here’s where I landed:

“A geek is a person with a strong interest in science and technology,” knowing that the word geek can be used in many other contexts, but I thought it was a reasonable starting point. The rest of the conversation may not be so interesting to you, but I record it here for posterity.

“I like science!” Harry has They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science album and listens to it religiously. He truly does love science. “I’m a geek… What’s technology?”

“Technology are things like computers and iPads.”

“I like technology, too! I’m a geek.” You are, son, and were the day you were born.

That’s just it, Harry was born into geekiness, which I realized as soon as he claimed his own geekhood. I also realized that the definition was much more subtle. So, I did what any geek would do and posted the following on Twitter:

HB wants to know the definition of geek. Your preschool-appropriate response?

The responses ran the gamut, and were perhaps a lesson in parenting style more than in the definition of geek. A couple guys (@daveixd and @yoni) provided dictionary definitions, which involves some kind of circus freak. Here were some of the more relevant ones:

@paintingblue: someone who presses lots of buttons and sits in a dark little cave happily drinking coffee. that is what i tell my 3 yr old
@vanderwal A person who pays attention finer points of interest and has incredible focus on a subject – could be a shark geek
@angelacolter I would say, “a very smart person who is good with computers.”
@nwhysel A tech geek can do weird, techy things and they temselves are odd and difficult to understand.
@willsansbury “People like daddy?” 🙂
@uxcrank Sandbox definition of Geek: “Someone who cares way more than you do about a thing or a kind of things.”

I love all of these definitions, but my favorite by far was fellow dad and author Gavin Bell:

@zzgavin someone who enjoys understanding how things work and how to change them, sometimes just for the fun of the understanding

That phrase, “the fun of understanding,” resonated with me. It’s the thread of what my group of friends have in common. It’s what drives much of our business strategy at EightShapes. It’s what helps me be a better parent.

It also extends the definition beyond science and technology. At lunch, I brought up the topic and my wife used “football geek” as an example. This isn’t a nonsense phrase: it’s a meaningful combination of words. Gavin’s definition fits nicely (except the part about “changing how things work”) because football geeks want to get inside the inner workings of the game, and they do so by studying every aspect. They do so because they enjoy it, but understanding the game in greater detail is, for them, fun.

Wikipedia’s entry on geek (perhaps I should have turned there first, instead of Twitter) elaborates on these ideas, and, of course, describes various controversies associated with the term. They talk about how a pejorative has been appropriated for self-identification, and how the term remains distinct from nerd and other similar words.

Anyway, during lunch, as my family reflected on the term, I couldn’t help but consider geekery in the larger context of America. The observable anti-intellectual trend runs counter to “the fun of understanding.” Is this what it means to live in a post-9/11 world? Is this the inevitable consequence of a two-party system? Does politics have to polarize the mere pursuit of knowledge, too?

A couple years ago, the Washington Post ran an article called the Dumbing of America, by Susan Jacoby. For people who make their living on technology, who were intellectually gestated in liberal arts academia, and who face the modern challenges of parenting, the first half of this article is an incredibly disappointing diatribe against technology. Pointing a finger at “video culture” as the cornerstone of anti-intellectualism in America is like blaming the automobile for the widespread obesity. One of the conclusions she draws, however, is interesting. America faces not only anti-intellectualism, but anti-rationalism: there emerges an “arrogance about that lack of knowledge”. More scary than what Americans do not know is that many have “smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place”.

Arrogance knows no boundaries. Does geekiness also include an intellectual arrogance? Does the emergent “geek chic” style point to something beyond self-identity, toward self-importance? Is this the connotation encoded in the politically charged word “elite”? I hope not.

I hope Americans who embrace intellectual pursuits see it as separate from a culture or style. I hope they see it as a responsibility to themselves, their country, and their children. I hope they understand it as their contribution to society, on par and just as meaningful as other contributions, and not something that elevates them above others.

Life without Cable

August 26, 2010

Summary: In which I geek out on our home entertainment set-up for those considering canceling their cable or satellite subscription. Wired just ran a story on this (not yet online), with a comprehensive guide to equipment and a cost comparison.

Home entertainment is at an adolescent stage, and I’m not talking about the content. Like a kid growing up, the adolescence of home entertainment electronics is a little awkward, a little different for everyone, and nothing quite fits right. Unlike the simplicity of cable with a set-top box, using the Internet to pipe content in to the home is a little complicated and a little messy, but opens up lots of possibilities. Still, shedding the predictable, simple existence of home entertainment childhood is now feasible.

My family dropped our cable subscription in January. We haven’t looked back. Our motivation was to save a bit of money, but one of the happy consequences is watching less TV, and watching more quality programming.

The set-up

Attached to our television is a Samsung Blu-Ray player with an internet connection and a Mac Mini.

The Blu-Ray player connects to the internet through the Mac Mini’s shared web connection. It provides access to our Netflix “play now” queue, as well as Blockbuster movie rentals, Pandora stations, and YouTube. We never use those, though, just the Netflix.

The Mac Mini has an Elegato EyeTV attachment, with a high-definition antenna. We pick up about 20 channels over the antenna. The EyeTV software allows us to record programming over the air. We mostly use it to record kids shows off PBS, but the selection of kids programming streamed over Netflix grows every day, making the broadcast content less necessary.

The one advantage to using the Mac Mini as a DVR is that I can move that content to the iPhone or iPad, which then gives us kids video on the go.

What we use

For watching broadcast television, we mostly use I investigated other services, like Boxee, but the simple, web-based interface for Hulu was attractive.

My 4-year-old son gets to watch TV twice a week, and we almost always stream episodes of Kipper or Blue Planet through Netflix. (The kid is nuts for talking dogs and David Attenborough’s narration over obscure marine life.) Alternatively, he’ll watch a DVD of Mama Mirabelle or Thomas and Friends. Mama Mirabelle is a National Geographic show that’s broadcast on PBS, so we can also record it off the air.

We will occasionally watch streamed Netflix videos, usually movies or period dramas. Otherwise, we watch a lot of DVDs from Netflix, which is our primary method for watching movies.

There are a couple shows we like but unavailable on Hulu. These are accessible through the channel’s web site (like The Daily Show) or we pay for a subscription on iTunes (like Mad Men). If we can wait, we hold off until the show comes out on DVD.

What about sports?

Apparently, we’ve never met. Hi, I’m Dan.

Sports aren’t big in my house. We wanted to watch the Olympics but NBC’s insane restrictions about showing the content online made that challenging. Wired’s article has some good information about online subscriptions to sports. Frankly, forgoing cable and paying $120 to watch a full season of baseball on strikes me as a reasonable deal.

The consequence

Less television. Less crap. Just no other way to say it.

After spending some time with the new set up, I realized that one advantage is that there are multiple sources for content. This was not something I had thought about prior to life without cable. Between Hulu, network web sites, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and the antenna, we have lots of different ways to get to content. The same content (or, more specifically, episodes in the same series) is likely to appear in more than one of these channels. Those options give us flexibility, and we have an implicit hierarchy that starts with free channels. We can choose how much we spend on a show by paying more (for example, with iTunes) to have content that we’d otherwise have to wait for.

Eight Principles of IA: Redux

August 11, 2010

Following up on my presentation at the IA Summit earlier this year, I composed an article for the ASIS&T Bulletin with further detail. The article provides more formal names for each principle and breaks each down into:

  • a simple description
  • where it comes from
  • how I use it

Here are my original slides (on SlideShare) from the IA Summit presentation:

Cognitive Linguistics and Content Management

June 22, 2010

Dedicated to Livia Labate

I was a late blogger. It must have been around 2004 when I started blogging in earnest. was primarily a vehicle to elaborate some strange (some might say paranoid) ideas about how cognitive linguistics (as described in George Lakoff’s book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) can shed light on the challenges with content management. I wrote dozens of blog posts on how the metaphors we used to describe content management were (a) evidence that we had conceived the technology incorrectly and (b) actively undermining our efforts to implement good content management systems.

An excerpt from the content management workbook.The two venues where I really got to explore these ideas were at the IA Summit in 2006 and at the IA Retreat in 2005. At the Summit, I led part of a workshop sponsored by the IA Institute, and then I gave a regular session on new ideas in content management. The Retreat was more fun. I constructed a workbook (PDF download) that drove the conversation.

I’m confident that with sufficient time to do research, I could elaborate this concept into something substantial. The language we use to talk about computing no doubt shapes the design of interfaces and the ways technology integrates into our lives. Emphasis on “sufficient time”.


June 20, 2010

Summary: Thoughts on user-centered design through the lens of a flamewar on the DC-area bluegrass mailing list.

If you’re not familiar with bluegrass music, “Appalachian Jazz” wouldn’t be a bad description, nor would it be an insult to either genre. Both jazz and bluegrass are rooted in improvisation and a call-and-response dialectic relationship between the musicians. Both serve as frameworks for ever-expansive forms of music, yielding derivatives that build upon the basic assumptions (see also Jamgrass, Newgrass, etc.).

Both forms of music have a canon, their “standards,” which every novice has to learn in order to become proficient in the genre. In bluegrass music, standards are relatively simple pieces, generally using three chords with confined melody lines. Though bluegrass is characterized by its musical qualities (high tenor vocals, emphasis on fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, high speed tempos), its roots are geographical: in mountain music, and as close to oral history as you can get. Writing it down is a recent endeavor (as is its study by urban Jewish guys).

User-Centered Musicianship

The hot topic on the DC-area bluegrass mailing list these days is a flamewar about requests: members of the audience shouting out songs they’d like to hear. If you’re a national act like Del McCoury or Ricky Skaggs, you’re getting requests for your own work. If you’re a local act, the requests are for standards. The poor song chosen as the standard to represent all standards is a song made famous by the Osborne Brothers, Rocky Top. (It’s actually kind of an interesting song with a mode change in the bridge, but that’s another story.)

To take requests or not: those are the two schools of thought have emerged in this conversation. The former is epitomized by this quote:

Musicians who think they’re too good to play requests are missing the whole point of what it means to be a professional musician.  Being a professional means treating playing music as if it were a business, and the point of a business is to give customers what they want.

(No names to protect the innocent. Archives of the list are open only to subscribers.)

There’s another musician on the list who takes the opposing view, that taking requests somehow compromises his professional integrity. He said:

Let me put this in the perspective from the audience not from the stage.  I go to hear a band to see what they got. I want to hear them play and sing – I want to hear something new even if it is a twist on an old song. I don’t want to hear Rocky Top or any of the other beat-to-death songs. These songs bore me and are usually not played very well.

Performance Art

One of the things I love about music as an artform is that songs–to varying degrees–can be seen as frameworks. A piece of music can be played as written, but there are infinite opportunities for musicians to interpret, through rhythm, harmony, arrangement, and other stylistic elements. (Liz Danzico has been exploring the relationship between improvisation and design.)

When one musician remakes or covers a song by another musician, he or she sees an opportunity to explore the framework authored by someone else. (Heavy-handed interpretations can be as simple as “let’s play Aerosmith in the bluegrass style.” More subtle interpretations involve finding a way to put your own stamp on a piece, perhaps leveraging strengths of your band.)

This is what makes standards such a useful language for musicians. Simple frameworks for everyone to learn gives novices a common starting point. Seasoned musicians reinterpreting the canon provide models for students to understand the different ways to apply technique to a particular song structure. Moreover, seasoned musicians can enjoy a musical conversation with each other (a “jam”) even if they’ve never played together before, because everyone draws from the same frameworks.

The Audience

The flip side, of course, is that standards are “boring” to some musicians. When someone in the audience calls out “Rocky Top,” professional musicians hear “We want the lowest common denominator. We’re not interested in YOUR original music.”

This attitude is a useful input into the conversation about user-centered design, especially as products become more participatory. A few ideas:

Standards: The word “Standards” is appropriate. In both music and design, they represent meaningful starting points, a common language. Designers may resent standards because they don’t want to use the same old conventions for solving a design problem (just like musicians who feel like there’s nothing left to interpret on a song). At the same time, standards are a language to which everyone (at least in theory) can relate–designers and users alike. Apply a standard to a design problem, and you have at least some guarantee that users will have experienced the convention previously.

Requests: Musicians who resent simply having to fulfill every request by the audience parallel designers who don’t responsibly interpret user needs. Research may identify countless feature requests, but acquiescing to every desired feature does not yield a better product. Both musicians and designers need to incorporate requests into the larger, but more local framework: the project parameters, the business requirements, the technical constraints, and the designer’s own voice.

Ownership: Who owns the music? One musician calls it HIS music, and another calls it THEIR music. Still another uses the first person, OUR music. The nature of performance art makes the concept of ownership difficult, and each perspective is a useful lens with which to look at music. HIS music: he’s expressing his own compositions and interpretations; he’s demonstrating his aptitude for particular techniques. THEIR music: the audience bought the performance or the recording; they’re the customer, and they need to be satisfied. OUR music: playing music is a dialog between the musicians and the audience; musicians respond to the vibe, and the audience responds to the performance.

Interactive products, especially those that are attached to the internet, paint a similarly blurry line. I buy an iPod, but the design is Apple’s, no? I fill it with music, configure the settings, perhaps customize with a case, and it becomes “more mine”. This is less direct in web sites that allow me to contribute content, reconfigure the framework, and extend invitations to other participants. Twitter offers a useful example, incorporating features that came from emergent use, not from explicit user research. (This is a design technique called “paving the cowpaths,” that is, formalizing features that have become entrenched.) As a person who used the “RT” convention (to mean “retweet,” a feature subsequently incorporated into the product) am I partially responsible for the design of Twitter? Do I have some ownership of the product? (Even if the implementation is not ideal.)

The Future of Participation

In her interview on the Pipeline, Liz Danzico talks about the increasing blurry line between consuming and creating. Audiences become more active participants in the creation process. To see a drunken “Free Bird!” request as a parallel might be doing a disservice to the metaphor. Live performances don’t offer a useful framework for considering the future of user experience. Even more recent innovations like karaoke and open mic night, as well as old stand-bys like pulling a volunteer from the audience, don’t shed light on what a participatory medium looks like.

In a sense, user experience designers have it easier than musicians. We’re used to people taking products and finding novel application for them. As this practice becomes more pervasive, as products become more about their adaptability and their connectivity, musicians may find themselves in the hot seat. Some may be forced to revisit their assumption that performances are entirely within their control.