Radio Johnny: Thomas Vander Wal Discusses Our History and Future

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Today on Radio Johnny Jeff Parks chats with Thomas Vander Wal who helped found the Information Architecture Institute; the peer-written webzine Boxes and Arrows; and who also coined the term “folksonomy”. They talk about where we’ve been in the design community and how we need to start asking better questions that focus on what we don’t know, rather than arguing over the merits of the tools that now comprise our respective disciplines.


The end user was the person applying the tag to it not the person who was publishing it and that individual stood out. So the tag, the object, and the individual were its own nice little triad… I threw “folksonomy” out there because it was general folks who were doing the work of taxonomists.

In most organizations people are not comfortable sharing with everybody. They want to share with their peers and people they know and who they have a social comfort with…the best phrase about what they say is “I don’t want to be the company idiot”…so you need these essentially walled gardens with permeable walls.

We always create information overload and then we create the technologies to adapt, filter, aggregate and then preen that information so the information looks better and we can create a better decision.

Coming at it from “what it is that we don’t know”, [rather] than “what we do know”, is a much better approach!


Thomas Vander Wal discusses the early days of Information Architecture and Interaction Design and how we’ve gotten to a point where we need to start to re-evaluate our focus as a design community. We need to be moving away from conversations about the merits of the tools that make up our disciplines and focus instead on asking better questions.

Thomas believes that we need to be focusing our attention more on learning from other processes rather than getting locked into titles. These can limit our ability to provide value beyond what the business community commonly believes comprises an Information Architect or Interaction Designer.

Show Notes

Knowledge Navigator video from 1987
Matt Web at Reboot Scope – Design and contributing to culture; ourselves as individuals and the big picture; taking action.
Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore
VizThink Discussion with Daniel Rose and other Designers: Using Design Visuals To Communicate Ideas


A special thanks to Jeff’s sister Suzanne Lowry for providing transcripts for Radio Johnny! More on the way soon…

Thomas Vander Wal: It wasn’t until 2001 at South by Southwest and decided to go largely because I saw Jeffrey Zeldman speaking, Nathan Shedroff, Jeffrey Veen, and Nathan Shredroff when Vivid Studios was still running and was the precursor to a UX shop coming out of multi media because everybody knew that CD Roms were the next big thing. Before we got to the web, not only were their web pages beautifully designed and visually pleasing, but it mapped everything I knew from undergrad and the experience that I had to this web role that I was basically taking everything I knew and mapping that to this web world, and I was like “wow, this is what I’ve been doing” and I’d say 60% of the reason why I went to South by Southwest was just so I could go up to Nathan Shredroff and say “thank you” and nothing more. And as well to say thank you to Jeffrey Veen and Jeffrey Zeldman and just because what they were sharing things openly, it’s made a giant difference.

Jeff Parks: And something I think that we honestly need to do is take accountability to do more in this community, because there are a lot of people that do a lot of work that I don’t think we say thank you to enough. So kudos for that. Absolutely!

Thomas Vander Wal: And out in South by Southwest in 2001 was this group that I was talking to was talking about IA. And I thought, oh there’s a community around us. And I had been reading Christine Wodtke blogs a little bit. But most of this group that I was talking to about IA had a party to talk about their new company that they had started which was Adaptive Path. It was just very funny, these people who are very much like the IA community is now, and I was like “ah, they’re people like me. People that are taking this approach, this is how I approach things, this is how I do things. There is nothing really new in IA . We’ve just stolen from other disciplines and incorporated this. But then about two weeks later, there was the third IA summit in Baltimore and so hung out with a bunch of people there and had an epiphany about what we do on the web and moving away from navigation as the core metaphor that is before I met people at the IA Summit and I found a community that fit and at that time a large number of people that are in the community. It was some of what IA is but how are we going to solve these problems to get much better sites and services that are used. And the IA community who were attending and the people who are very creative and passionate about what this stuff was. It was less about tools but thinking about the problems, understanding what are the problems. Everything came from the designer sense where you’re not presented with something and you then turn around with an answer in tools. But you turn around with questions and try to solve the problem and research and try to figure out what are the limitations and what are the constraints. Then, how do we move forward and what are the goals and what are we missing in our thinking. And that was fantastic. It was a very inventive and innovative time and things were getting formed. And now what I see is not sort of the counter of that. It turned from a design very creative question driven approach with pretty much a large chunk of the community thinking that what we’re doing was wrong and thought there had to be a better way. To a community that has taken much of that and put it on a tool belt for trades people just like a plumber. And it’s like “Oh, here’s a leaky pipe, I can patch it. I can apply these things but it’s like this leaky pipe is no longer holding water. It’s now holding fibre optics.” And so we have a very different problem set here now that things are moving away from in strict web in web framing and framing of things just being in the browser.

Jeff Parks: Ya, because it was interesting too Thomas that we we’re going back and forth for ideas of this show and you wrote” Design is not about quick answers, but deep questioning for problems and solutions, spaces and their constraints.” I’ve argued before the web I think that people were better problem solvers. I think that we were better at if there was an issue or conflict it takes face to face communication. It takes time to resolve these things, you can’t just point and click a button and everything is resolved. And I agree with you. I think we’ve gotten into the semantics about whether wire frames are good or bad. You know, is it really relevant? Do we need not to be spending more time like you were saying getting into asking better questions, not only to clients but better yet to ourselves in our own community. Are we doing this well? And lately, over the past couple years I agree with you. I think that we’ve almost become complacent. Am I understanding what you are saying? Is that wrong?

Thomas Vander Wal: It is a large degree why I haven’t connected myself with the IA community. Well, IA and the much broader UX community, although there are pieces that I like and people that I like who I think are doing really good things. And the IXD Conference has many of them speaking this year which I’m very happy about. One of the things I was seeing 2003-2004 largely because I moved away, I changed my own mental approach away from navigation and browsers to focusing on this model of attraction and being able to drop something into a search box you are attracting similar to your screen, which then allows you to think about the processing capabilities of that machine, about the band width. It also allows you to think about the device, is it mobile? Is it a browser? I saw on Google the other day that I can send directions to a GPS. One of the drop-downs was do you want to send directions to this spot to your car? And I was like “YES, where is my jet pack?” (Jeff Parks: Laughing) It’s like we just hit the future baby. You know most of this stuff from 2003 to I’d say 2005, we hit a point where with Ajax and with pushing cleaner data, access to data and being able to stream it sort of mitigated the value of the browser and there were all these possibilities and finally start designing and developing for information that people needed, not into a relationship to a web site but a relationship to people’s lives and allowing that information to flow into people’s lives as they need it and when and where they need it. Sort of that technical nirvana that’s been around since… forever in the community. You know one of the videos that I keep going back to is Apple’s 86-87, the knowledge navigator. And keep on looking at it and thinking, okay, how much of it do we have now? And there’s a guy sitting at his desk and his display that’s built into his desk is talking to him telling him, “Oh, you have an appointment coming up today. Here’s all your research. I’ve aggregated / pre-compiled these things for you, so and so just showed up at her office and would you like to give her a call and prep for this meeting. You just need to do a sanity check on a few things.” So we’re at about 90% and since about 2006-2007, we’ve been there. Yahoo was sitting on a perfect storm from about 2005-2006 and was continually talking to them, everything you need to pull this sort of dream technical nirvana off, you’re sitting on. And it was mostly licencing agreement amongst some other things, just like managers holding onto the walls of their silos, that sort of thing that kept it from happening. That world of just designing for the browser I saw as roughly dead in 2005 but I tend to be a little bit ahead of things. I’m really really bad with adoption curbs.

Jeff Parks: Well welcome to the club, we have jackets. (Laughing)

Thomas Vander Wal: Jackets!! (Laughing)

Jeff Parks: Well we do, they’re embroidered. They’re lovely. (Laughing) My contention around that is just the fact that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and meeting so many brilliant people. Like you said in these communities there is absolutely some wonderful people with great ideas. I almost think that our titles limit us and sort of boxes us in. I was interviewing Daniel Rose who is the UX designer for Bell Canada at the visiting conferences the first one that Dave Gray put on a year or two ago. And he made a great analogy. He said when you have problem, he doesn’t think it’s possible to think outside of the box because the metaphorical box that you have is limited by the people that you interact with. So for example, when you have a design problem, well you go to the other designers, that makes sense. But you can’t possibly look at a solution differently if you don’t surround yourself with people and different experiences and therefore perspectives and in addition to that, even if you do that, you have to be open enough to look at that idea in a different perspective. People talk about having things like paradigm shifts all the time. A paradigm shift is having your eyes open to an entirely different perspective that you’ve never seen before and how that changes the way you view the world. And I think the IA community based on what you’re saying and my own experience over the past few years have become complacent and sort of locked into the tools that make them up. I call myself an Information Architect because the tools that make up the discipline over the last few years have been great and helped me communicate complex ideas to those people who don’t understand them. But 90% of my job has nothing to do with IA. It’s how do I communicate and convey ideas. And if that means an IA tool is not the one for an individual, then guess what? I don’t use IA to communicate those ideas and I think we need that broader perspective because without it, like you said, it’s the browser concept a few years ago was sort of dead. And maybe we look at the IA in terms of what Peter Morville describes as Wayfinding. Well then, it complies to the jet pack (Jeff Parks: Laughing) idea that you were talking about earlier. Then we can really start to expand the value of the disciplines and the ideas.

Thomas Vander Wal: Yes, the labeling, I found very problematic in 2005, and 2004 had coined the term Folksonomy as a very off handed comment to Gene Smith and the IAI listserve just because I didn’t want another “defining the damn thing”.

Jeff Parks: Ya, cause I don’ think we need that, no, I think we’re good. (Laughing)

Thomas Vander Wal: Ya, and there had been some back and forth discussions as to what was going on in Twitter and Delicious and was the tagging that was going on there, what made that different than all the tagging that had come before it. I had been introduced to tagging in 89 with Lotus Magellan which is a DOS-based tool that essentially indexed everything on your hard drive, then allowed you to put a new file into annotations and key words and essentially tags to it. So you could aggregate things in many different ways as essentially as how you thought. And the office that I was in had a sneaker network that worked rather well. We would walk in with our floppy over to this one guy who had this very expensive $110.00 software. (Jeff Parks: Laughing) and he would index all of our memos and client interactions and we would add our own key words and it was just so stunning as to what you can come up with. You didn’t have to reinvent a memo and a letter to a new client who is dealing with importing left shoes into one port in Southern California and right shoes to a port into Northern California. You know, we already dealt with that for a similar instance. But had played with all the tagging systems that had followed on. Through CompuServe and through all these different things, even through Bitsy. But is was like, okay, this is very different and what stood out with the individual applying the tag, the person consuming the information and sort of the end user was the person applying the tag to it but not the person who was publishing it and that individual stood out. The tag and the object and the individual were a nice triad. And it’s like, oh I no longer had the Bitsy problem which was that anybody could tag music, and made the assumption that everybody had the same understanding of genres as everybody else. And there is no quicker way to get into an argument than tagging something Prog Rock, that doesn’t match somebody else’s Prog Rock. (Jeff Parks: Laughing.) Yes this is Prog Rock, Rush is not Prog Rock. It’s like, “Oh no no no, you’ve applied the wrong tag.” (Jeff Parks: Laughing) So you could ignore the people that called Rush Prog Rock or not, and it’s like,”Oh no, those are my people.” But just sort of through “Folksonomy” out there, because it was general folks who were essentially doing what the hard work of taxonomist and the taxes the work piece of taxonomy in the effort component and so you’re moving the tax piece in something that general folks could do and just threw it out there and nobody else really threw anything out there and Jean Smith published it out to the web a day or two later and it just stuck which was kind of bothersome, because there were other things that I was trying to push forward along with a model of attraction and personal info cloud and local info cloud and this misunderstanding of information that has a life beyond the screen and in people’s lives and how do we start designing and developing for it. But one of the things that became even more bothersome was it got a lot of regular press and regular media including became one of New York Times ideas of the year in 2005 and I kept on being identified as an Information Architect, and was getting cold called from CEO’s of rather large companies and CIO’s asking “How can you help us?” This sounds like an interesting concept. It was like “Well, I didn’t understand what they were doing and what their needs were.” And they were sort of like ,“Oh, so you’re a business consultant or a strategist but since you’re in IA , we know that you can’t do that!” And I tried very hard to run away from it, and they were like, “You don’t understand business, IA’s don’t understand design well. IA’s don’t understand technology well. And amazingly enough, they knew what IA’s were and sort of what the community had put forward. So there was rather a good brand recognition for IA, but it was an extremely limiting concept.

Jeff Parks: Yes, it’s interesting what you sort of just described, you know, when you go to a party and you meet someone, or somebody and you get introduced to someone. Like for example, someone introduces me to you and maybe Gene Smith, and Gene Smith says “Jeff, this is Thomas Vander Wal, Thomas this is Jeff”, Oh nice to meet you Thomas and what’s the first question you ask? “Oh what do you do?” And you do that to put it in a frame of reference if I’m going to have a conversation with Thomas I need to understand what things that he’d interested in, or the experiences that he’s had. And it’s the same thing. Well I’m an Information Architect, oh and like you said “You can’t do these things.” And a lot of that comes back to the accountability of the community and the way they’ve conveyed the ideas and what it is that IA does. And that complacency I think has created a problem. Now, do you think that these same issues that we talked about, don’t just apply to IA right? Would you say that title that sort of idea, does it apply because Johnny Holland is largely an interaction design magazine for example. And I have a background in cognitive behavioural psychology so I get the importance of understanding the human behaviour. I don’t know how you call yourself a user experience professional if you don’t understand human behaviour. That’s like calling myself an auto mechanic because I read a car magazine. (Jeff and Thomas: Laughing) Do you think these same problems apply in the interaction design community or is it a different kind of an approach and context that doesn’t apply as succinctly as it does to the IA community?

Thomas Vander Wal: With interaction design, well when I’m dealing with companies who are looking for interaction designers like we have an interaction design need, it’s very well framed and a lot of the people within the interaction design community there’s an awful lot of depth, many of them come from a true design background also. Either they have schooling in design or they’ve worked in an actual design shop, where they have design critiques and run it as a studio, and actual design shops and studios are brutal. There’s no quicker way of learning than just getting torn apart left and right on a weekly basis. And the stuff that keeps getting put out is design studio stuff around the IA community is “light/happy design theatre”. It’s sort of the sitcom version for the design studio. A lot of how design thinking has been practiced. Not so much from audio but many places it’s missing the depth and understanding to know what missing man hole covers are or not there. What are the things that we really need to know? Where’s the depth? Where’s the expertise? You can short cut some of the potential solutions, but there’s an awful lot that’s missing that needs to follow on from it. But in the whole UX community it’s you know, I really like Peter Boersma’s model T approach. And even when he had it labelled as sort of Big IA , but understanding that there was these eight or nine pillars that people brought to the sort of rough design community for user experience. And understanding that very few people have depth in many of them. You may have a relative depth in one of them but you have some depth in others. I was on a Metro train the other day and there was a group of people who were SEO’s talking about they were the true UX, and it was like this is like every community, and I know visual web designers and they think they’re the true UX and everybody thinks that they’re the true UX and everybody else is kind of faking it, but none of them have the breath of all the different columns and pillars and that breath and depth of all those pillars is what makes up UX. Anything short of pulling all those things together, you know you are still missing something that’s going to bite you and be detrimental to your final execution for your customer, your side, or whatever you’re building. It’s like customers at Fortune 500 Company ask me that they need a UX person, and I’m like “Well what do you mean by that?” and they’re like “Oh, someone who understands interaction design, be able to take wire frames and other things and fix the design problems in those and be able to execute.” One of the companies had built one of the most phenomenal video sharing services that I’ve ever come across and that’s in a large company on their Intranet and it was built by people who had left Yahoo and and had built the Yahoo video service and they were like, “Ya, we need more of these types of people. And they’re just like the wire frames and other things they often don’t understand the design, they don’t understand browser constraints, they don’t understand interaction design but we need people who can fix all of those problems and misunderstandings, or lack of understandings to be able to do that. And they’re just like it’s a dime a dozen if you can get people who can do that one piece and no one can find someone to execute the stuff and there is a need for both of them. It’s just that they were understanding in most organizations that I talk to are just like “Ya, we need someone with UX” and it’s like is it IA/UX, is it IXD/UX, is it information design, you know what is it, that type of UX that you’re looking for. Then quite often they’re like “Oh, this is exactly what we’re looking for” and UX has become, I really like the post of Johnny Holland which I think got misunderstood is that UX is a commodity. To many, it’s a general term for what was design but it’s designed for people to use things, not necessarily to design for design’s sake.

Jeff Parks: So getting to great design in that regard from what you were saying, you are right we have sort of silenced ourselves off within the disciplines in that organization. I mean ultimately what it sounds like to me is what we need, regardless as to what you call yourselves is someone who can go in and convey the ideas and convey the values behind these ideas. Ive given presentations in the past where it’s like you know you’ve got the business executive who talks like the IT person in the room, and the business executive person hears the IT person like a Charlie Brown teacher, right? “Wah wah wah wah XML” and the other one heard “wah wah wah wah” return on an investment and they hear the key terms without understanding them. So what I think I hear you saying is that we need somebody to pull those ideas together into a context that you can understand, just like social media. Oh, we need a social media strategist. Okay, well what are your business objectives? Well, we don’t have those defined yet. Well, we have to define those to know how to implement social media strategy because these things are just tools to connect you to other people. And if you don’t even know your audience, I can’t tell you how to convey that to the people. So we need to take more time to sort of flush that out so we can create a better design and you can use the tools that you need rather than doing what we’ve done over the last ten years was just chuck everything on the web and say we’re accountable and the design is fine and it’s there. So, you know, whatever.

Thomas Vander Wal: Yes, yes, One of the reasons why I got away from various labels is because I just use very broad innocuous terms. Consultant strategist advisor which more or less frames sort of rates, but the roles that I do and they will do long term engagements, most of my engagements are going in and having people say most of my stuff is looking at people, organizations, Intranets and B-B. A lot of it is dealing with social tools and other things, it’s just “Ya, we deployed these social tools inside our organization and we’re stuck. So, I had some models developed over the past two to three years to help me think through and sort of identify (a) what their problems are before they got in there, identifying that oh, they picked the wrong tool set for their problem type, and looking at the deficiencies within the tool types to actually get what they need out of them. There is just a lot of misunderstanding and taking the Web 2.0 stuff and bringing it in house. The adoption rates are just insanely low. When you look at things inside the organization and they’re like, oh, we only have 8% adoption or 15% adoption after this year, we were expecting much higher. Look there’s seventy million people using twitter, seventy million people you know much, much less than 10% of web users. You’re looking at something that has fourteen million people and using it out on the web and you’re thinking you know you’ve just blown their adoption rate right out of the water. But the mental models and how they think about things and technology pain that these tools solve, that’s not present in people, so have people that say I don’t understand what this does. I don’t need it, let me just go throw my photo’s into e-mail, I’m good. And that’s probably every organization is trying to get out of e-mail just the problems that it puts on their network and storage capacity that they have on any mail is making e-mail far less efficient than what e-mail can do relatively well. But move all the documents and objects out of them and have conversations around them where conversations can actually flow and which is very different from the Web 2.0 side of things. And the Web 2.0, we’re still dealing with only early adopters, and continually keep going back to the big book of the 90’s about understanding how the web and how all these web things were going to help to save the world. Jeffery Moore’s crossing the chasm and having the innovators and the early adopters. Then there’s this giant chasm and then you start hitting the late adopters in main stream, and most of the organizations that I talk to, and particularly the vendors, they’re just like “ Ya that chasm, it looks like we’re in the Red Valley and we’re on top of the cliffs and there’s birds and clouds below us and we don’t see the other side and it’s like we’re stuck. Part of it is the tools and the interaction design in it and tools are getting much closer to allowing humans to act socially as humans act socially.

Jeff Parks: We are social creatures right? (Thomas Vander Wal: Yes) That’s the reality. We do need to be able to connect with other people. I’ve always thought you know user center design is great but I think we need to step back from the user ability testing before we start that and we need to focus on user center design and the user being the people who have contracted us to help them with things and get a better understanding on how they think about things and then communicate things because it doesn’t serve anybody any good. I’ve worked in different government and private sectors companies, you know, where the big names come in and they’ll throw down their all but encompassing framework for everything and say ,“ Here you go, and if you follow this, you’re going to be hugely successful.” They don’t understand the corporate culture, they don’t try to (like you were saying) are you on top of the mountain looking down or are you actually in the valley of all the other people and taking those various perspectives. It’s great knowing what tool they want but if we don’t understand how to communicate with the people are going to get by into what we tell them to do then it doesn’t matter what we recommend. We might as well be that organization that just says, “Here’s the universal frame work. I’m smart, trust me, my brand is well known all over the world, you’ll be successful,” which is crap.

Thomas Vander Wal: Ya, Intranets are one of the things that I really enjoy because you have this nice closed population. And coming out of Grad School and finding a nice closed population to test, and you know you can watch adoption trends and do your longitudinal studies, watch things grow and get a cross section out of actual populations and Intranets are a pretty good place to do that. And a lot of things I’ve started discovering the last four to five years, sort of looking at the Web 2.0 stuff and just sort of how that does and doesn’t transition inside to a closed population and just the actual adoption curves; identifying some of the things that are counter to the Web 2.0 sort of mind set. The Web 2.0 stuff is this nice combination of use of use and having the tools get out of the way. And to allow people get what people have in their head get out of their head. But how their social and sort of the group size and just sort of the social comfort, in most organizations people are not comfortable sharing with everybody. They want to share with their peers and the people that they know and who they have the social comfort with and walking around organizations and asking questions at the water cooler. Do they know they have a wiki? Do they know they have other stuff? People know that they do and the best phrase that captures what they say and sometimes it’s explicitly what they say is I don’t want to be the company idiot. They don’t want to make a mistake, “ouch,” where everyone can see it so they want to put it out so that it can be embedded and it’s like “ah, this is a good idea.” So you need these essentially comfortable walled gardens with permeable walls. And most of the tools are one or the other. They’re either open spaces or they’re walled gardens where it’s difficult to get the information out and share it. That’s how we work as humans. We might have a comment that we want to put on a Listserve to a broad community of a few thousand people or even a small community of a thousand people and e-mail it around and I might have a response to this but I think it might be nuts. What’s wrong with it? And they don’t want to get blasted in the Listserve and so they’re like, “Ah ya, that’s a pretty good idea, just put it out there” and that’s the way that most people work.

Jeff Parks: And I think that brings up another interesting point. It’s like the analogy like I said before, when you meet somebody you asked them what they do. And especially in North America. I haven’t traveled to Europe or other places so I can’t provide context, but at least in North America I know, we value and define who we are by what we do. Like almost to an unhealthy extent, I think because we get so caught up in that. You know, the global economic crises is creating problems for everybody, but even that hit to your self-esteem, at least in North America. When you’re unemployed, to say you’re unemployed, it hits you deep and I think that speaks to what you’re talking about. You know, when we’re with our peers in an organization, it’s really important that it’s our ideas and the things we talk about are valued by other people but it’s also having the capacities with leaders and other groups of people to be able to step up and share ideas and within this community, within the IA community, within the Interaction Design community, I think in both I’ve seen time and time again where people throw out ideas and on mailing lists, they’ll just slam other people. Asking someone to organize two million pages on a mailing list is.. well maybe not the best place to ask the question. But, show respect for the community in the ideas and the question itself. And I think we need to be doing more of that and like you were talking about before, this stuff is common sense to us because guess what? This is what we do for a living, we live it everyday. We need to recognize that most of the world doesn’t know what we do, they don’t necessarily see the value in it and we need to be spending more time educating people about things, rather than pushing things on people and telling them this is the way you do it, and well listen to me because I’m smarter than you, and I work for a big company and I’m so and so. I mean ego gets in the way, right?

Thomas Vander Wal: Well, it’s been one of those things on the past year or so circling back on some things that I’m seeing happen again, which is in the 90’s, the job applications, we had these open platforms and this open field and then it turned to flash. And seeing some similar things in google wave in applications that fit within them. Where you have this open field and based on the context as to what you’re doing, you’ll get a different palate. It’s open sharing environment with people working on different things within this open space. Anything can happen in there. Text can go in there, images can be put in there, annotated, connected, all sorts of different things going on, but it doesn’t fit within this wire frame mode and continually have been looking for. It’s like okay, what is the wire frame equivalent, so you can roughly sketch story boarding sort of works, sketching flows sort of works based on context, but then you can watch people who are using these tools and they’ll mix and match things in wild ways. And they’ll have an audio channel open and its like they go, “Oh, you know, you’ve got the video tool open and can you annotate this and put a hook on it so I can grab it for text and I can link these two together as I can do live time stamping.” And your watching essential real emergence happen within an application, and it wasn’t necessarily thought of emergence happen wherever we have no boundaries. Wherever there is a weakness in the boundaries, in applications, that’s usually where emergence happen. People have a need and they’re like I can get to it this way, and it’s sort of a hacker’s mind set but I find most people have it. There are thousands and thousands of ways that people that use XL for all sorts if things. And I’ve seen people do web grids and doing wire frames in XL because they have pixel by pixel, each cell is two pixels and it’s this large view but they can build grids and flows and all sorts of things and structure in XL and it’s like that’s not the intent on a spread sheet. But they are using things that are usable and malleable enough. But I keep throwing out this question of what are the potential tools or how would you build something that you can then rather do wire frames annotate all the different components. All the different states of that application and the inner face when it’s not infinite but for the human mind the approach is infinitum and what I get back is, oh have you tried Axure? Have you tried wire framing tools? And I’m just like (a) you’re coming back with answers, you know (b) you haven’t thought about the question that’s out there and you’re throwing a tool out there because it’s on your tool belt and there are these hard core questions because these are the people that are the darlings of the community, and it’s like I fear for your clients if you’re coming up with answers like this and these responses. There are just so many more things that we need to be solving and particularly as the browser is completely changing and these inner faces and how we are using the information and how we use objects and how we’re social around them. All of them is still relatively broken, and that’s one of the wonderful things about using the Intranet. I get to see the stuff that’s broken on a regular basis and they’re just like “Ya, it’s not working the way we thought.” It’s like being able to identify ah, here are some things that start fitting how humans interact a little bit better. As humans over the progression of all written time, we are incredibly great at creating information overload. Newspapers started out as a side broad sheet, then it went to four pages and someone’s like, “Hey, did you see that Bob sold his ranch?” And they’re like, “ I wanted to buy Bob’s ranch.” And it’s like, “How did you find out?” “Well, it was in the newspaper.” There’s about four hundred snippets in 1890’s newspaper. Then it was, “Oh, what we need is categories and sections for the newspaper. You know real estate in one section not next to the barbers who just got new razors. Go get your face shaved.” So, it’s we always create information overload and the technologies to adapt, filter and aggregate and preen that information so the information looks better and we can make better decisions.

Jeff Parks: There was a great book I read a while back by Clifford Stoll called High Tech Heretic, and I love that and in it, he talks about the fundamental premise behind the book because we’ve sort of gotten away from the fact that guess what? Learning’s hard, it takes time, it takes study, it takes research. He told a great story about a parent teacher night. And parent’s came in to look at the art work on the wall and the kid had printed off a clip art image artist and they put him up on the wall and Clifford was watching as this other little girl was working diligently with construction paper and glue and scissors and putting together this beautiful home. And he said you could just see the creativity and you could see what she was imaging what this little city would look like. And she proudly went up to the teacher and said “ Mrs. Smith, look at what I created.” And the teacher looked down (not to be disrespectful) looked down and said, “Well, that’s nice but we’re looking at what the other children created.” Reality is, they didn’t create anything. They pushed a button and the computer created it for them. Schools in the US, entire libraries of books are being replaced by a few computers. I think this speaks to the point that you were making. It’s sort of like when did we get away from the fact that asking questions and continuing to problem solve and understand the purpose of the tool? I tell client’s all the time, look, this web site is about you, but it’s not for you. So, who are you talking to? The web is a conversation now. Don’t worry about the tools that you have. I don’t care if your using web sphere or Lotus notes or whatever the hell you’re using, the tools aren’t relevant. We need to understand the context of the conversation you want to have with other people and understand the tools. The old analogy it’s been used millions of times, if your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Well, put down the god damn hammer because if you’re digging out a foundation for a house you need a back hoe. This is something you don’t claw away at and hoping that you’ll get different results from. One last thing that I want you to chat about Thomas, because we could go on for hours about this stuff, and I love this conversation and I also think that these kinds of conversations we need to be having more of in the communities regardless of how you give yourself a title.

You talked to me about many inflection points where “it depends” is talked about a lot. It’s not only a statement and a questioning point where what is needed is beyond our tools and understanding today. Ken Robinson talked about TED the famous talk that he gave about education. He said “Kids born today are going to be graduating in let’s say 2070. We don’t know what the world is going to look five years from now, and yet we claim to be educating them for it. So can you talk about this “it depends” analogy. I mean we all do it. So can you explain a little bit about that?

Thomas Vander Wal: Part of it sort of relates back to just having these set tools and understanding problems that will trigger just what sort of tools we use or be able to say ,“I don’t think I’ve got a tool that fits what this is,” but with doing workshops and presentations and so forth, one of the things that is frustrating to me is when people ask me, can you give me just A,B,C. How do I do A? How do I do B? How do I do C? For me learning the A,B,C has never been a good answer because I’m always running into capital A is the answer for lower case a, and it’s like I’m running into Q, what do I do with Q? I didn’t learn that, I didn’t learn how to think. And understand the questions you need to bring to it. When you run into certain answers, you begin to have these decision trees. It’s like okay when I get this answer this may be complete but from my experience I always get bitten by what I didn’t know. So I’m like let me ask this slightly differently. And it’s been one of those things for the past year, year and a half, have moved away from focused groups thinking that they were complete rubbish. But had been working with some people that had seen the results of people in the focus groups more or less as they were intended for research purposes. Mike Usowski book on user experience research frames it really well. But if you use focus groups to understand the pain points of what people value, and you’re getting this broad set of feed back and you’re getting what one person says within the organization within a set context, trigger something else in someone else’s mind, it’s like, oh ya, we do need to think about mobile for this because you know no one is ever in the office when something breaks.

We need to be able to reset things, be able to have alerts but also to be able to give the feed back. And so, they’re coming up with all these problem sets that when you ask sort of singularly or you’re doing contextual research sitting and watching someone do things, they all have value. But there’s nothing like getting this insane set of potential problems that at least need to be considered and accounted for when you’re going through the entire design process. But then, when you’re looking at these questions, these sort of problem set, like is it technology problem, is it a human issue, what is driving it? And it depends on the different components that go into it, sort of having this breath of understanding of the social sciences and humanities. It’s like, oh, this is a cognitive issue, this is a linguistic issue. The inner face is problematic, it’s not used on correct devices. The problem is, is that these two people have a history on prior projects that have been a disaster and they’ve both been blamed and then they both blame each other. It has nothing to do with anything of what is going on (Jeff Parks: Laughing) within the system.

Jeff Parks: Well I think that it’s just like you were saying, it’s more of an opportunity to delve deeper into the problems for people so when you come back with a “it depends,” it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It’s more of an opportunity to learn more. So when someone asks you a question, “Do we choose tool A,B,or C and you come back with an “it depends,” you can’t just leave it at “it depends” and have them continue to talk or say well it has to fit into this, but have learned to ask better questions. You know people say to me “How did you go from a rehab therapist for brain injuries, to working in gangs to working with tech field in IA ?” The reality is that the web is a conversation. And if you understand how to communicate with people, at least from my perspective, you have to get creative when working with clients like that, right? Because they don’t communicate the way that you and I can communicate. They don’t read body language. They may not be able to talk, they may not be able to see, they may have things that trigger various behaviours and by understanding that you’ll be able to read other people very well. I think that if we become better, I don’t give a damn what your title is, if we can get better and asking better questions and communicating ideas, not only to one another but also to the business communities at large, I think that the titles will become less relevant. You can give yourself any title you want and people understand the value that you are in.

Thomas Vander Wal: One of the projects that we were working on was for redesigning the inner face for the highway engineers, and it’s all of their requirements and regulations that they need. Their large technology pain point was that most often, these documents and information was needed was out in the field. And out in the field meant sometimes in the middle of the Arizona Desert, it meant on some remote bridge where you didn’t have Internet access. You had to drive back to the hotel or somewhere and what they needed was this information easily accessible on a mobile device. This was 2003-2004. And so, how do we structure this web site so it can be chunked, easily used, light weight enough to go on to a windows mobile, a palm device that has access to the Internet and at least they have some data connection. But when you try to figure out did the regulation go from rivets going from three feet apart to two feet apart or did it go from three feet apart to two and a half feet a part, four months ago because all the engineering diagrams and all the design work had been done eighteen months ago. The last sixteen months some things changed or the last six months so they were always having to verify that they were doing something correctly. When they had initially built the web site, mobile wasn’t a consideration. And it wasn’t a consideration until we started talking to the people that needed the information and it’s like, how do you use this information, in what context do you need it? And I find very rarely even now in 2010, or even in the last five years that anyone has asked that question. And very sadly, we’re running across people who are just like, “oh we need an auto mobile.” Well then, build an iPhone ap. (Jeff Parks and Thomas Vander Wal: Laughing) It’s like okay, that’s a tiny slice of people. A lot of people I know now are moving off the iPhone for various reasons and going to other devices. And it’s like okay, you have completely limited your use capability without saying, “Okay, let’s build it so iPhone and all the other smart phones that you would want to build an ap for, they all have browsers that can work with the mobile inner face and do the exact same thing, maybe not as cutely or flashy as doing an iPhone ap, but there’s possibilities there.” But it’s just understanding the “it depends” moments that where do people use the information, how do they use it? You know, if you’re buying a washer and dryer, there’s incredible information on the Internet, and everyone that are going out and buying an appliance or anything over three hundred dollars is doing heavy research on the Internet. Almost no one is printing this information out and taking it into the store. Brands and people who are selling these products should really be defending the product decisions because people are making decisions based on all this information and their needs on price, features functionality and all sorts of things, and being able to ensure that they’re buying what they think they’re buying. People are just embarrassed to take a stack of papers into the appliance store and saying, this is the exact washer and dryer. Here’s the next model or two up or down and if this isn’t available here are my other wishes. I was ranting about this in 2005 and presenting it at conferences and still have yet to see if any of this really surfaces anywhere.

Jeff Parks: I think a lot of this ties back to a couple issues, control and trust. I’m thirty seven so my Father’s generation when the Internet wasn’t around, you could control the flow of information pretty well, within going outside of your organization. Ten year olds have as much access to as much knowledge as I did when I was twenty five. This changes the game for everything, and so people have to learn that control is always an illusion. You can’t control, but in the Information Age, if you don’t wake up to that reality, you’re going to be left behind, and I think that the other thing to convey is trust. Whether you’re putting in a proposal as a consultant or whether you’re going for a job interview, if you’re in the room having the meeting you’re qualified. You don’t have to prove to people you’re qualified. What it really comes down to is that they’re going to hire the person that they think is best within their team in the corporate culture and whether or not that they’ll be a good fit to be able to add value to the company. So I think if we focus on asking better questions as you’ve talked about, I think if we start looking at opportunities in areas like “it depends” to ask those better questions and spending more time actively listening rather than trying to tell other people that this is the process that you have to follow and this is the tool set you have to use. I think with everything that you’ve described I think we’d be able to evolve the conversation beyond defining the damn thing and we’d be able to move people’s values with whatever project that they are working on. Raise the bar dramatically for all the communities and I think it’s great where the communities have come and the global community owes you a debt of gratitude Thomas helping to start Boxes and Arrows forming the IAI because I know there are still thousands of people around the world that are getting great value out of those organizations, very much including the Interaction Design Association in the community that started up. But if we spend more time learning from one another and stop debating one another, I think we can accomplish… really our capacities in these communities are unlimited, at least in my mind from my experiences.

Thomas Vander Wal: Coming at it with a mind set as what we don’t know rather than what we do know is a much better approach and there’s a really good video from Reboot in Copenhagen this year with Mat Web, and in his presentation he talks about design and the design being the creation of something that is completely new and different that improve things. Design isn’t necessarily what’s going on with people creating web pages isn’t necessarily design. We’re taking things out of tool sets, we’re not coming out and asking the question what we don’t know, how can we make this better? How can we make the apple knowledge navigator, and we’re not far from having that come to life. And we haven’t been for the last five years, but we’re still coming at it with the approach of what are the tools that have gotten us this far? Not what are the tools and how do we get us that next leap. I’m finding in communities of small groups of people who have that similar mind set, but I’m not seeing it in communities at large. When I first ran into the IA community in 2001, it was largely that type of people and not only did I have affinity with people who were viewing the world in the same way as far as the approach that I had but it was also the people who asked the questions and the problems in the same way of what do I not know and what do I need to know. In the last three years or so at the IA Summit, it’s been essentially the same presentations with different names, better slide presentations but there’s really been nothing new that has been presented. There’s about two years of content in the IA community that keeps on regurgitating.

Although the IA Summit this year has some new things that seem to be very new to it which is really nice to see. Don Turnbul talking about analytics and some other things, and I’m just like “that’s just insanely refreshing to see” in something getting out of the mind set “hey, I have something new”. This is the same as a person X’s presentation in 2003, almost word for word, and I’m like, “oh I never knew about that.”

Jeff Parks: Yes, absolutely, and I think moving forward I think if we take that approach what we don’t know , and I hope that when people hear this conversation, the point Thomas of this conversation of what you and I are having is not about slamming people, it’s not about slamming about what we are doing, it’s about getting an understanding and appreciation at where we’re at. Thanking people who have gotten us to this point but we need to evolve the conversation beyond defining the damn thing, and recognizing the inherent value and the ideas both within the current processes and the things that we could do for clients and our community at large because you know, when I have problems with design I send them to my parents who are sixty seven years old and who thought when getting on the net seven years ago thought they’d break the Internet.

I could learn so much more from them than some of my own community, so I hope that people will take this conversation in that vein. And I really want to thank you for taking the time on Radio Johnny, Thomas and I hope we’ll be able to chat more in the future at conferences and stay in touch.

Thomas Vander Wal: Ya, that would be great.

Jeff Parks: Okay, thank you!

Thomas Vander Wal: Thank you!

Jeff Parks

Jeff is the co-founder of DIGIA UX Inc. and actively collaborates with industry professionals from around the world through his involvement with Boxes and Arrows and Johnny Holland. Jeff is also leading workshops on Information Architecture and User Experience Design over at Follow the UX Leader, in addition to volunteering his time as a Mentor and Member of the Board of Directors for the Information Architecture Institute.

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