October 27, 2009

InfoCamp 2009 Notes

A few weeks ago, I went to the InfoCamp 2009 unconference in Seattle. InfoCamp describes itself as “unconference about user experience, information architecture, user-centered design, librarianship, information management & related fields.” For those of you not familiar with an unconference, it’s a kind of conference where sessions are put on by the attendees, instead of pre-screened presenters. I had a great time at InfoCamp, and I recommend attending next year.

These are my notes, from some of the sessions I went to.

  • Death to Static Wireframes
  • Jing Screencasting and Information Literacy Instruction
  • Designers and Business People: Best Friends Forever

Death to Static Wireframes

In this panel discussion, design practitioners discussed the future of wireframes. The panel was:

Matt Turpin: Interaction designer at Ascentium in Bellevue.
Kris Bell: User experience designer
Mark: From Blast Radius. (Sorry, Mark, I didn’t catch your last name or job title.)
Andrew Otwell: User experience architect + interaction designer
Kevin Wick: Designer at Ascentium
Aaron Louie: Associate Director of User Experience, ZAAZ

The panel started by discussing what constitutes a static wireframe. A picture you can’t interact with at all, such as a PDF file, is definitely static. Some panelists considered a basic click-through (static except for clickable links) to be static, too. There’s some gray area.

Each panelist made an opening statement. (And, unfortunately, I didn’t capture Andrew’s statement in my notes.)

Aaron’s Opening Statement

Are static wireframes dead? It depends. They’re not all that problematic for small sites with little interaction. Anything with animation, motion graphics, video, complex interactive controls needs a better representation.

Kevin’s Opening Statement

In his experience, when walking through a static wireframe with a stakeholder, sometimes the stakeholder just doesn’t get the experience will be. Kevin has to do a lot of explaining about what the static pictures mean. The best way of showing the experience is to actually interact with the experience. This gets everybody closer to what the end product will be like.

Mark’s Opening Statement

There’s a danger in letting the tool drive your design solutions. For example, if you’re sketching in Visio, you’re tempted to just use whatever the stencils give you. Maybe that’s appropriate, maybe it’s not. Start with big ideas drawn on paper or a whiteboard. Think of static wireframes as a higher-fidelity sketch.

For usability testing, you get better results from a dynamic wireframe. But your dynamic wireframes don’t need the exact level of interactivity and fidelity as your final project. For example, the wireframe can have less flash and javascript.

Chris’ Opening Statement

Wireframes will continue to exist for executives who want to cruise through a design. Think about who will consume your wireframe. Developers need rich & high fidelity, others don’t need that much.

At this point, I mostly lost track of who said what. Statements are the (unidentified) speaker’s point of view, not necessarily the consensus of the panel.

Question: It’s easy to control a discussion with stakeholders, when using static wireframes. It’s harder to herd cats as the mock-up gets more elaborate. How do you manage the conversation with stakeholders with dynamic wireframes?

That is, interactivity increases fidelity, therefore stakeholders worry about fit and finish.

Expression blend has a module called sketch flow. Things look sketchy. But it is interactive. Expression also has some presentation tools. Aaron was using a beta version, and saw lots of potential. They succeeded in framing the discussion they wanted to have.

Q: What tool do you prefer at the moment?

(Each paragraph is a different panelist’s answer.)

Axure. That panelist has used it solo and with a team. Axure uses subversion for revision control & collaboration. Axure also has the pencil-looking widgets.

HTML + JQuery + CSS. They’re good for low-fidelity prototyping, and they’re the panelist’s final product anyways. JQuery + FireBug + other plugs-ins help for dynamic web sites.

Visio. Pen + paper. Excel (to plug in which content goes where).

Axure. Dreamweaver. HTML + CSS.

Q: Do you prep the clients, before showing them wireframes?

At the start of a client (or stakeholder) meeting, discuss the scope & purpose of wireframe. Remind them that we’re not talking about visual design, copy, creative elements, etc.

80% of the job is managing stakeholder’s expectations. This is more politics than drawing. It helps if you have the same clients over & over again, because then you train them.

Q: Different stakeholders need different documents with different content and different levels of fidelity. How do you automate creating all those documents from one master?

Wow, that’s hard. That’s something of the ultimate goal, but the panel doesn’t think we have the technology to get there yet.

Q: Wireframes are, to some extent, the core deliverable of interaction designers. The other teams (developers, product managers etc.) are used to getting static wireframes. How is switching to interactive wireframes a cultural change in the organization?

Kevin was pleasantly surprised at how well Axure was received. PMs, clients, and developers “get it.”

As for how much time a manager should schedule for creating wireframes, Kevin hasn’t seen an increase in time needed for making the wireframes. The time spent making an interactive wireframe is slightly longer, but the wireframe doesn’t need heavy annotation like a static wireframe does. The time for dynamic wireframes could be about the same, or a little less – Kevin hasn’t done a formal study.

A follow-up question asked how you ensure that developers find all the required behaviors without annotations. You can’t hand them a prototype and expect them to find everything, can you? In response, it was pointed out that Axure has some annotations built in. You can print static, Visio-looking wireframes from Axure.

Comment from QA

A software test person commented that he feels separated from designers by too many levels of bureaucracy. He asked designers to please engage QA earlier in the process. Dynamic wireframes will help QA get a better understanding of how the product is intended to behave. Additionally, the QA person feels like he often doesn’t know rationale behind the design, and this hampers his ability to test.

Q: An audience member tried to use Axure a year ago, and found it limiting for making high-fidelity wireframes

This comes back to not letting tools limit your thinking. Do more sketching outside of a technical tool. Be prepared to murder the ideas you like.

Build your own prototypes (as opposed to having developers make them for you). That gives you more freedom to try 5 ideas and discard 4.

(Note: I don’t think I captured this fully. In my notes, the answer seems disconnected from the question. That wasn’t the case in the presentation.)

Q: Is there a clear distinction between when wireframe is done & when you start the site?

This is a common situation: The wireframes are locked down. Then you get to copyrighting, and copy writers argue about the space needed for text. Then more changes happen. The wireframe isn’t as locked down anymore.

An agile design model could help here (analogous to agile development). Keeping UX involved longer in the process could also help, to remind people why page elements are there.

It helps to work with copy writers during design. Use high-fidelity wireframes for this. You should also design contingently: What if I get 20 words of copy here? What if I get 200? Know that your copy will change over time. Your design will outlast the initial copy.

Content is not just words – content is everything & anything (videos, etc.).

Jing Screencasting and Information Literacy Instruction

Jing is a tool for making quick and simple screencasts. The presenters, librarians at the University of Washington, discussed how they use Jing to support their patrons.

Screencasts are video recordings of an application’s window, demonstrating how to use an application. The librarians started using Jing because it easily lets them do video tutorials – for example, how to search using the library’s web site. Because Jing is a light-weight tool, there’s little cost to re-doing the tutorials after a site change. Also, many of the ideal librarians to create the tutorials have limited technology skills; they don’t want to learn a complicated video-editing package.

The librarians found Jing so easy to use, they started using it for one-off support situations. When supporting a patron via online chat, it’s easier to record a quick screencast showing the patron what to do than to describe it textually.

The presenters put their notes up on the web, so I’ll link to them rather than repeating the information here:

Designers and Business People: Best Friends Forever

This was my session. Sometimes marketing and management can be a valuable ally for designers. Sometimes they’re an obstacle to overcome. I led a group discussion about why that is, and how to improve relations between designers and business people.

Most of the questions and advice came from the group. This was great for getting breadth of perspectives. However, like the wireframes panel, I don’t have names to go with the comments. I’ve generally put one speaker per paragraph, but not always. If a paragraph has contradictory viewpoints, it’s probably the opinions of two different speakers.

Video of the talk is at

Question: Who are business people?

That is, who are the people we’re talking about how to get along with. Marketers and project managers are very different people.

One agency worker’s perspective: Who you work with varies. In some accounts, work with the CMO & COO. Other accounts: work with people who are more of a product manager type role. Try not to work with only the product manager. The product manager answers to a room of other stakeholders. The other stakeholders probably need to be involved, but it can be unclear who to get.

Another agency worker offered this advice: Have managers of your group & managers of the other group get together for a conversation of what’s guiding decisions. When you deal with someone, you deal with their whole org chart. The more you can find out about the pressures on them, you’ll be able to help them, and they’ll feel that you’re helping them.

Frame your pitch in terms of what your business partner cares about. In my job, worked with product planners who were concerned about creating a launch message. When I’d talk to them about design and usability issues in terms of how it affects the launch message – talk to them in their language – I got better results.

We’re all service workers – internal or external. Think of providing customer service to your clients & business partners. Understand what someone needs, and appeal to their sense of importance. Business folks, we think, learn this in business school; designers don’t formally learn this.

Stakeholder management would be a great college class. Some UW students and graduates report that their MSIM (masters in information management) program covers this (not in a class that’s actually called stakeholder management – they picked it up over several classes). They learned how to pull out concerns from their stakeholders: . Asking why stakeholders asked for features, to get at stakeholders’ rationale.

In an agency, it’s important to have a strategy of how you’ll deal with clients. Especially troublesome or difficult clients. Know some of the red flags, have an agreement of how you’ll go through it.

Q: How to deal with last-minute changes?

One participant has a challenge where some influential business stakeholders will not engage with the rest of the stakeholders or the design team. They wait until the last possible moment – everything has been signed off, nothing is supposed to change, a few days until site launch – then they muster all the power they have to completely change everything. No time left for anyone to provide feedback or pushback or discussion.

One suggestion: Put everything in writing. The contract can say “we have 4 design iterations, anything over that, you’ll pay more money.” But being legalistic about the contract isn’t always the best approach. Come from a customer service approach, and negotiate how to meet in the middle. This helps maintain a relationship – you need this for internal or external clients. Make it clear what the effect of the changes will be; give a clear timeline. If you do this right, your stakeholders will be happy that they’re listened to. One participant gave an example where he buttered up the client, starting the conversation with how the client’s ideas would improve the project, and then moved on to discussing the ramifications of the change. This changed the client’s tone, because designers validated her.

The participant with the stakeholders who delay clarified his problem: He thinks his stakeholders are trying to avoid design by committee. They don’t want their message and goals to be distorted or watered down, or to have to go to 24 meetings to advocate for what the stakeholder wants for the site. The lesson learned is to have the stakeholder who did the delay tactic engaged early. Don’t let him skip meetings. Appeal to his sense of importance to engage him.

Q: Business people in peer relationships

The questioner deals with stakeholders every six weeks or so, but has business peers he deals with every day. How to help those day to day relationships?

Acknowledge that good ideas can come from anywhere. Don’t rule out ideas from the rest of your team, just because they didn’t come from the designer.

There’s the stereotype of the opinionated designer. When the designer’s work is criticized, it can come across like a personal criticism. Designers need to foster an environment where they can be criticized effectively.

Q: How to extract knowledge from product planners?

When working with product planners, the questioner needs to find out what a product is going to do. It’s hard for her to get the product planners to reveal this information. How to get that information from the product planner, and hold the planner accountable?

Building a personal rapport with the product planner makes the rest of the process easier.

A planner will often say something like “What we want it to do is be successful.” The value you bring as a designer is to bring concrete representations. Sketch, with many iterations. Ask “Is it this? How about this? This?”

What’s missing is for people to understand the role of design in the business. If you can base your recommendations on data, not opinion, you get more respected. Talk about design decisions from a business point of view.  Also, program managers think in terms of features. The designer’s job is to make those features work together.

The product manager is probably doing some early research to define the product. It would be great if the designer was invited, but often times you’re not. Even if you don’t come along, you can ask lots of questions about the research. Examine the findings. Ask deep questions.

“As designers, our jobs are so cool that everyone wants to do them for us.” So give people paper & pencils, and let stakeholders do some design work. (Especially early in the process.) If you have some pre-seeded ideas, you can direct the conversation a little bit.

Another needs analysis tactic: Come with some post-its, and have everyone write down the most ideal thing that could come out of this project. Put them on the wall, affinitize them, and discuss.

Ask what the value of the design is. By what criteria will the design be considered successful? Use that as a starting point to derive what the product planner wants.

Stakeholders will propose a solution. You need to understand the problem they’re trying to solve with the solution. Propose alternatives.

Q: Evangelism

What approaches do people take for evangelism? How do you educate clients and managers.

For usability testing, let stakeholders watch. Or have video clips / highlight reels. Let stakeholders see the “aha” moments.

Let a third party do the evangelizing. Give them something to read (e.g, The Inmates are Running the Asylum). Or maybe just photocopy a chapter, if they’re reluctant to read a whole book. Sometimes, your point is in the title or summary of an article – even if they don’t read it, they get some of the message. A third party gives the message more credibility than just you.

If you know what brands your stakeholders respect, you can talk about what that brand does. But make sure you’re accurate – they’ll know what their competitors do.

For external clients, let your sales team educate clients on your process. It’s challenging to take an approach to a project that the sales person hasn’t sold to the client.  Sales is where the approach with the client is defined. Then by the time you do the work, you’re contractually locked in to do the approach you want.

For internal clients, try to get involved early in the planning process. “We can make your planning documents look way cooler. We can get in screen shots. Would that be helpful?” Tell the planners: “If you want this 6 months from now, here’s a process we can use to get here.”

Speaking of sales, it helped to have the designer go on a pitch. It’s a good time to educate the designers about what stakeholders are concerned about. There’s also a time to be the guy in the black turtleneck, as a sales technique. Especially now, since the concept of design thinking is big & hot in the business community.

Q: Design thinking and business strategy

Where do design thinking and business strategy intersect? Where can designers help, and where do we have no business giving advice? Sometimes we can do our jobs so well that business people listen to our design suggestions and start listening to our business suggestions.

Identifying an unmet need, and bringing it to the attention of management, is a legitimate role of designers. But that’s different than saying “put all your eggs in this basket,” and advising how the business allocates its funds – that’s dangerous.

Follow-up: What is design thinking? What does the buzzword mean?

Design thinking is taking a design process and applying it beyond designing an object/web site. A natural extension of contextual design – understand how an object fits in its context of use. IDEO started going into the medial field, and found that the problems that need solving are larger than just the devices – the design process uncovered systemic problems. Apply design methodologies to business problems: Sketching, prototyping, systemic thinking. Use these to improve a business. This is related to service design – how do we improve a business process?

Because it’s a buzzword, business people, and even engineers, are more receptive to talking to designers. You can use this to your advantage.

Evan Dickinson is a former Portlander currently pursuing an MA in interaction design at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. He blogs about his studies for CHIFOO. Write him at evan_dickinson at sfu dot ca.


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Matt Holm

Executive Council Member

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November 10, 2009
12:50 pm

Wow! That’s an exhaustive review! Thanks.

Jackie Scherer - Program Coordinator


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November 10, 2009
3:00 pm

Thank you, Evan!  I regretted not being able to go, and your notes make me feel as if I attended myself!

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