“User Experience.”

It’s not all that different from what we do as public historians. But how do we apply it to the virtual world?

In Communicating Design: Developing Website Documentation for Design and Planning, Dan Brown lays out his fundamentals of design and planning when it comes to building a successful (read: user friendly) website interface.

“User Experience.” It’s not all that unfamiliar of a concept to those of us who study public history. A visitor’s experience at a cultural heritage site and their subsequent feedback is an integral part of many public historians professional careers. We are often faced with various design challenges such as: text placement, interactivity, how to displays various kinds of artifacts, and designing tours which engage the visitor in hopes of getting positive feedback, ultimately getting us closer to our goals of disseminating historical information to the general public (this is obviously a generalization, but stick with me through the comparison). What we do as public historians is not so different than what Dan Brown does as a person who works in information architecture and user experience design. He, like us, also creates environments in hopes of successfully drawing people in and disseminating information to those who enter his environments. The difference being that instead of a physical environment, like that of a museum or other historical organization, he creates digital environments via websites.

It is clear in his book that this is what Brown does for a living. In many ways he takes a very meta approach–integrating his own visual techniques into his explanations. For example, in his chapter about creating concept models to communicate information, he uses a concept model to explain how create one.

While this approach is amusing, it is also highly effective. As someone unfamiliar with website design and how to approach communicating said design, the visuals of the visuals he describes help to picture how I would apply said strategies myself. These visuals (or artifacts, as Brown refers to them as): diagrams, personas, concept models, flowcharts, etc., are then packaged together to create a deliverable, which can then shared with the team, client, or outside consultants for input and discussion.

Another effective piece of Brown’s book are the definitions at the top of each chapter. These help define the important term each chapter discusses. These terms are not necessarily unfamiliar, for example, “Usability Plan”. This term is certainly not some kind of complex jargon. That being said, Brown’s definitions help to give the term context within the purpose of his book. The definition also provides a larger clarification of the term within the professional world. I myself have never really thought much about how to define the word “deliverable” despite the fact that I’ve been asked to create one in the workplace multiple times. This helps to put things into perspective, and also adds an additional visual aspect to things that would not necessarily be considered “visual” otherwise.

While Brown frames his process for creating artifacts and producing deliverables in order to communicate the design of a website, his steps to creating a successful web project are applicable to really any project–especially in a professional setting, but even within the context of designing a research project. This aspect gives the text a dynamacy that makes it incredibly useful (so much so I even followed Dan Brown on twitter after reading the book so I can keep getting tips and tricks from him). His organizational structure makes what can be the very messy and content rich process of project design and makes it visual, so that you can physically see the steps ahead. This, at least for me, was a very persuasive way of organization which I had not given much thought to beforehand. Moreover, when I have tried to create visual “artifacts” to assist me before, they have never turned out to be very effective. Brown’s text provides the outlines for making effective visual artifacts in order to create a coherent and useful deliverable.

I think this could be a very useful text for those of us in the humanities who are unfamiliar with the virtual world, but are trying to create an effect internet presence. In Sean’s discussion of History Wired and User Interfaces last week, he commented on the ineffectiveness of the website’s interface. I commented back my own qualms with various cultural heritage organizations’s ineffective UI’s. I think Brown’s book could be a great start for many of these organizations to get ahold of their ineffective interfaces. It makes sense that his of visuals to communicate project design result in effective, user friendly websites, as at their core websites are visual entities. I myself was just assigned a project at work to reorganize how we sort our items in our online retail store, in order to make it more logical and effective. Although this a much smaller scale project than what Brown often refers to, I plan to use the lessons I learned in Communicating Design to create an effective plan to complete this project. Get back to me in a few weeks, and I’ll let you know how well Brown’s organizational plan worked in the context of the reorganization of a historical association’s webstore.

In the meantime, check out a recent tweet from Brown about the redesign of Slack’s logo–which touches on some of the worst aspects of the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” culture of the internet.

2 Replies to ““User Experience.””

  1. Thanks, Amanda! What I really found useful about Dan Brown’s approach is how clear it is and that it focuses not only on theory, but on practical aspects as well. His model of layers really helps the reader follow his logic. I appreciate you going to his Twitter page. The thoughtless Slack’s new logo resembling swastika, just makes me wonder how many people it had to be approved by and still make it to the final product somehow. It really proves Brown’s point that the designer’s job includes tracking progress and ensuring that such a PR failure would not occur.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think the Slack fiasco is an interesting one. I didn’t know people had been comparing it to a swastika until I saw Brown’s tweet–and now of course I can’t unsee it. I think it really drives home Brown’s point about working within a highly collaborative team, as you said. Having as many eyes on a project as it develops can only help create a better final product. I too wonder how many approvals it had to go through, and if there had been a more rigorous, collaborative approval process perhaps someone would have noticed the likeness before it was made public.

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