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Imaginary UX Definitions

Joining the DesignMap team as the studio’s first office manager, I entered a new world of complex systems, precise visual aesthetics, and almost incomprehensible lingo. Coming from a theater background (another field that has its own jargon with acronyms for everything), I figured I would get the hang of it and soon these new terms would become part of my everyday vocabulary. But in the meantime, I’m having fun making up imaginary definitions for UX lingo and then looking up what it really means. (First day freebie: UX stands for User eXperience.)

Interaction Designer

Let’s start with my effort to figure out what exactly everyone is doing in the studio here at DesignMap. Interaction design. What does that mean? This required just a quick trip to DesignMap’s website to find out that “Interaction design is about determining how an application acts. How many screens are there? What do they do? How do they interact with the user and with one another?” So that’s what Interaction Designers think about all day long. Contrast this with the misnomer “Interactive Designer.” Pretty much all designers are interactive; they carry on conversations, respond to email, ride the bus, use the Internet, pick up the phone… Specifying that a designer is “interactive” implies that other designers went and got themselves cryogenically frozen so that they can be around for the launch of the iPhone 400.

Information Architecture

“Information Architecture” has nothing to do with how earthquake safe your local library is, or the cool stuff you can build out of books (like this guy’s desk).

library desk made out of books

Information Architecture is the art and science of organizing and labeling websites and software to support usability, bringing together principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape. Typically it involves a model or concept of information that is used and applied to activities that require explicit details of complex information systems. According to Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the term (as well as founded the TED conference), IA refers to “the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work–the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear.”

Information Architecture diagram

Wireframes

“Wireframes?” I had a pair of those in high school…

Nope, wireframes are not eyeglasses. They are a tool for designers to identify structural and functional elements of a website, as opposed to graphic elements. They’re sometimes quick conceptual sketches of a navigation menu and major buttons, and sometimes very detailed blueprints of websites ready to be built.

wireframe sketch Sketch 2 Sketch 3

Napolean’s March

When I heard “Napoleon’s March” in the studio, I first thought of Eddie Izzard running across the stage (5:07) shouting “I have a better idea!” and then retreating immediately with “Oh, it’s the same idea!” I imagined that “Napoleon’s March” might be a complex historical metaphor for a project that has been attempted before, disastrously, (Napoleon, 1812) and then reattempted with new fervor and hubris but the same result (Hitler, 1941), because the underlying challenges are still present and insurmountable. As much as I like this definition, that’s not what designers are talking about when they mention Napoleon’s March. Cartographer and civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard created a chart of Napoleon’s attempted attack on Moscow in the War of 1812. The infographic combines the geographical map of the offensive and retreat with a visual representation of the number of men remaining in the French Army. It has been called “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” This representation was groundbreaking in its time, and the design community is still pretty excited about its ingenuity and clarity.

Loupe Effect

I was pronouncing this “loopy” effect, and imagining our studio full of over-caffeinated designers.

The term “loupe” (really pronounced “loop”) is not a new invention for the digital age. Jewelers, watchmakers, photographers, opticians, dentists, and stamp collectors have been using them for centuries. A loupe is a magnifying lens – different than Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass because a loupe does not have a handle. Some loupes use multiple lenses and mirrors.

old school loupe
In the digital world, a “loupe effect” enlarges a section of the screen so that you can see the finer details of a new product or make tiny edits to the email you’re typing out on your phone.

Pace Layering

Part of what’s so disorienting about some of these terms is that they are English words that have always been in my vocabulary, but the interaction design field has put them together in a way that means nothing to me at first. “Pace” is easy: speed, rate, how fast something goes. “Layer” is simple enough, in the context of hair, clothes, dust, cake… Okay, time to Google it – and it turns out this is actually a two-part definition, so buckle up. Part 1: Architect Frank Duffy originated the concept of Shearing Layers to describe buildings as a composition of several layers of change. From the “eternal” site or geographical setting on which a structure is built, to the skin, services, and space plan, to the uber-mobile stuff like furniture and hairbrushes, these architectural layers each have a distinct lifespan and rate of change. Using the building architecture analogy, it’s clear that the more basic the level of architecture, the more difficult it is to make changes to that level because of the interconnections between that level and others. For example, to rebuild the foundation of your home, you might need to tear down the entire house and start again. Projects on other levels are easier – rewiring the kitchen, for example, or replacing the roof. Easiest of all is moving the furniture. Part 2: Steward Brand elaborated on this concept with the idea of Pace Layering in Information Architecture, presented at the IA Summit in 2003.

pace layering

In user interaction design, it’s useful to think about the different rates of change for different elements of an application or system. For example, you might have one computer for 5 years, but upgrade the operating system every 2 years, buy new software applications a couple of times a year, install updates to various applications monthly, and create new files daily. Product developers straddle the gap between innovation and stability, balancing consumer demands for new features with the potential for disorienting or even alienating customers by bombarding the market with a constant stream of updates. Here at DesignMap, we use concept maps to root our work in those deeper layers. While logos, colors and even the interaction itself may change over time, the constancy of the underlying concept helps us to make sure the fast-moving outer layers reflect that deeper truth. For more on pace layering, check out usability.com’s article “The Evolving Web.”

Skeuomorph

I have to admit, I had no charming misconception of what this word might mean. When I first encountered it, I copied it right into Wikipedia’s search bar. A Skeuomorph is a defined as a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” The word comes from the Greek for “tool” and “shape.” For example, your digital camera is programmed to make a sound like a shutter click, even though the noise is made with a recorded audio file and not a physical shutter. And have you ever seen a chandelier with flame-shaped light bulbs? Another skeuomorph.

Skeuomorphic Chandelier

In user interaction design, skeuomorphs can be used to equate functions of a digital interface of a product with the functions of that product’s physical-world counterpart that users may be familiar with. For example, your email program probably has a “compose message” button marked with a pencil and sheet of paper, even though neither of those tools are used in writing an email. In image editing programs, many tools are shaped like the brushes a painter would be familiar with.

iPad brushes

I was surprised to discover that skeuomorphs are a hotly contested topic in design. Some argue that they help new users to feel more comfortable with the digital version of a real-world product, while others denounce skeuomorphs as “kitchy.” Apple’s iCal design is a subject of much debate, because of its faux leather stitching and torn-off pages at the top like a classic deskpad calendar, in contrast to the sleek minimalist aesthetic that informs most of Apple’s other products.

The Long Tail

I must be finally getting the hang of this UX lingo, because the term “the long tail” did conjure an image similar to the one below. Then again, the lucky connection could have something to do with the great number of times I’ve heard my dad quote Monty Python’s “Theory of the Brontosaurus” sketch. Chris Anderson popularized the term “The Long Tail” in his book of the same name, subtitled “why the future of business is selling less of more.” Businesses like Amazon.com incorporate this principle into their strategy of selling a wide variety of items, rather than a large number of very popular items. In the classic Zipf demand distribution, the area of the curve under the long tail is equal or greater than the area of the curve to the left of the head. That is, the volume of sales/revenue potential of many hard-to-find items is at least as great as the volume of sales of in-demand items.

The Long Tail

For this same reason, Information Architect Lou Rosenfeld argues that interaction designers should steer clear of this almost-infinite tail of data, and instead focus on the most frequent search terms to discover what the majority of users are looking for. Rosenfeld asserts that this focus will make the biggest difference to the overall usability of a website or application, rather than “chasing the long tail” of infrequent search terms in an attempt to design for all possible user objectives.

FTUX

Maybe a teenager would think “FTUX” as he creates a duct-tape prom outfit in his parents’ garage.

Turns out, FTUX stands for First Time User eXperience. (Sometimes it’s abbreviated to FTUE, which is almost as much fun to say.) User experience designers are concerned not only with how the product works once a user is all set up, familiarized, and ready to go, but also with what it’s like to get started using a new operating system, new software, a new smart phone, etc. Have you ever heard someone say “It’s great, once you get the hang of it?” That “get the hang of it” is the First Time User eXperience.

Old Man at Computer

So that’s my FTUX with these new terms and concepts. Please leave a comment below with any other lingo I can look up… I think I am starting to get the hang of it!

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