SXSW notes, Design sessions (+ebooks)

The design sessions I went to were sort of all over the place. What they have in common is that they made me think about my design process, and to think about how things work in the greater community of web design.

The design sessions, along with the tech sessions, energized me as to the possibilities of design and made me excited to try new things in this area.

Design from the Gut: Dangerous or Differentiator?

Jane Leibrock, Laurel Hechanova, Naz Hamid, Phil Coffman, William Couch

The bulk of this session was summed up in the very first question tweet that came in:

“Is “intuition” in fact a result of accumulated life experience, which is essentially both intentional and unintentional research?” -@justinc

In short: yup.

It was interesting hearing that designers at big startups with a lot of money still do a lot of gut designing. It would have been interesting to get someone from, say, Google on the panel, since they are known for testing every choice rather than doing much “gut” designing. I think this is changing, though, as Google Plus launched with some features that don’t seem so obsessively tested as many Google products (like the drag and drop circle organization.)

From the session:

  • “gut” is a weird term. An experienced designer’s gut is different, and going to make different (presumably better) decisions than a newbie.
  • You could also call this experienced based design.
  • While usability testing is great, it is not always economically feasible. A support network is invaluable.
  • Networks are great, but “don’t get feedback from the choir.” Find people outside your usual circle, outside your company.
  • The client doesn’t really care about research or gut designing – you have to make the best decisions and then sell your design, whatever way you do it.

Getting Good: Practical Tips for New Designers

Allison Wagner, Yesenia Perez-Cruz

The advice:

  • Write it down
  • Keep inspirations
    • Use a tagging system. Pinterest can be good for this, or any system that can tag/organize pictures into albums (like Picasa desktop).
    • Diversify your inspiration. Find things everywhere, record it.
  • Streamline your workflow
    • Use text expansion, keyboard shortcuts
    • Be efficient
    • Streamline with apps – find ones that work well with each other, your OS, and your process.
    • Check out The Setup to see what other professionals use.
    • I didn’t hear this mentioned in the session, but I think it is important to walk a line between streamlining your process and actually working on things. It is easy to get stuck in a loop where all you are doing is consuming productivity porn and not doing any actual work. Also: It is worth paying for good tools that will save you time.
  • Be aware of the creative gap. “For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. … But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” -Ira Glass
    • Keep the stuff you make so you can track your improvement.
    • Or delete and focus on the future.
    • Sometimes stuff isn’t as good as you would like: you’re just not there yet in terms of skill, you have to make compromises due to client demand. You don’t have to put this stuff in your portfolio, just finish it and move on.
  • Work rough in the beginning.
  • Ask for feedback
    • Find people who will give honest feedback, and foster it in your organization.
    • I think it is important to let people know your feelings won’t be hurt if they don’t like something. This seems to be a design specific problem, people just don’t like giving honest feedback on design.
  • Use style tiles to present design elements separate from the structure, especially in web/interactive design. This can be a way to get feedback from reluctant clients.
  • Find the time and motivation to keep learning.
    • Techniques like timeboxing may help.
    • Find resources to help your keep up on tech, such as Think Vitamin’s Treehouse.
    • Teach your skills to someone else, it helps you internalize.
    • Find places with good articles, or follow trusted content aggregators.
    • View source!
    • Partner with someone and give each other assignments

Making eBooks Smarter: Responsive Page Design

Peter Meyers

Like the above, this session was a “core conversation,” Which means the presenters acted as moderators to spark discussion and gather advice from the audience. The moderator was especially good, and the discussion was energetic and inspiring. I classified this session under design because of the thoughts it inspired in me: we work with a lot of book like content at work (including many actual books) and this session made me think of ways to present that content in new ways. I hope to start a project or two soon that will make use of these ideas.

The moderator, Peter Meyers, started off with three scenarios to think about – I think of them as personas:

  1. User is reading The Great Gatsby and wants to go back to where Daisy’s character is first introduced. Not where she was first mentioned, but where she is first described.
  2. User wants to browse the book The Power of Habit in a half hour.
  3. User has a travel book on Brazil, but is not going during Carnival, so doesn’t need that part.

Paper books don’t handle these things well, but right now ebooks are only marginally better. If we can solve these problems, the digital book becomes more valuable than the paper book.

Ways to make ebooks better:

Comprehension: Help the user, include dictionaries, but go beyond. There may be some things specific to a book not available in a generic dictionary.

Memory: Help the user answer the question “Who is Edith?” Especially useful when a work is not consumed all at once.

Interpretation: Some users might need help with interpretation. Cliff notes were designed, at least in part, with comprehension in mind. Example: Bret Victor’s design for Al Gore’s Our Choice ebook. Examples could be interacted with, values changed, which helped interpretation. Also see Bret Victor’s website,

Time constraints: (mostly for non-fiction) Could we have accordion like content, small, medium and large versions for the user dependent on time and interest?

Relevance: (mostly for non-fiction) Example: How to Cook Everything app, could the user constrain entries to only options that reflect what they have in the cupboard, or exclude certain ingredients?

Discovery: How to help users discover new media and new things about the media they are using? This is where the social element could come in.

At his point, Peter opened up the discussion to the group at large.

We talked about social integration in ebooks and imagined how it might be integrated into a book. There was no consensus, but some of the ideas were to include existing networks as the basis, to include emotional annotation, to change the “lens” the social content the content could be seen through depending on the type of user. Examples included:

Managing user content continues to be a problem. Adding a social layer could help by only showing content by trusted sources, or giving preference to that content. Moderation will still probably be needed for public content, which can slow down this implementation with orgs (like us!) that don’t have a person to handle ongoing moderation. In the end, the best way to handle might be to allow others to have conversations elsewhere, which is enabled by linking. (More on that when I type up my tech notes).

Extra content should have a way to toggle off, so as not to distract the reader. Ebooks are different from the web, and it is important to keep a pure reading experience. One way to do this is to layer content, and make the layers toggle. Epub3 with HTML5 should introduce lots of exciting opportunities to do this.

Examples of enhanced content ebooks:

  • Alice in wonderland
  • The Hobbit
  • Inkling textbooks- include things like quizzes to test comprehension.
    • Note: When I looked this up later, I was excited to see the ebook Living with Art until I saw the price – $100 for an ipad only ebook. I would love to have content like this for art, why is it always so expensive?

One of the questions was: how much extra content is too much? My feeling is that if the design is right, you can include an almost endless amount of extra content. The question, is, how many users will access all that extra content? Enhancements for ebooks is a small market, not many people are willing to pay extra. In a non profit sector, price isn’t an object, but spending lots of time on enhanced content only of interest to a few may not be the best use of always scant resources.

One more example:

This session left me most excited with the possibilities of providing free, downloadable ebooks of scholarly content. the question now is: how? and in what format? More on that when I write up my tech notes…

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