Breaking the Constraints

On August 7, 2014, UX designers and developers around the world cheered to the news that Microsoft would officially drop support for older versions of Internet Explorer, effective January 2016. Yet by and large, the outcry was less “hooray for Microsoft!” and more “why didn’t they do this sooner?” The answer is “because people still use IE,” and yet people still use IE because it’s supported, and it’s supported because people use it. It’s a vicious cycle. Two years ago, Nicholas Zakas wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled “It’s Time to Stop Blaming Internet Explorer,” in which he said: It’s not actually old browsers that are holding back the web, it’s old ways of thinking about the Web that are holding back the Web. He went on to explain that constraints will always exist, be they older browsers, business requirements, or user needs, and it’s the UX designer’s job to focus on what can be done rather than how to rid the world of the constraint. It’s an intriguing idea. We do work within constraints on every project, and many of them will never wane no matter how much we complain about them, but some constraints can be cracked, or at least altered, if we know where to begin. We’re often told to ask for serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage (or coffee) to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. By understanding where constraints originate and why users react to a given constraint the way they do, we can gain the wisdom we need to identify whether each constraint...

Realizing Empathy, Part 2: Praxis

For as long as I can remember, I’d considered art to be the antithesis of design; the rationale being that art was self-indulgent whereas design was empathic. After spending four years studying both the visual and performing arts, however, I’ve come to realize that not only was empathy required in the creative process found in art, but its role was pronounced in a broader and more granular way than design. With this newfound understanding, I now hope to bring more of art in to design so as to reconsider both how we think of and practice design on a day-to-day basis. This is the second of a three-part series exploring the myriad events that led me to see that “realizing empathy” is at the heart of the creative process. “Realizing empathy” is a term I’ve coined to refer to the process of deliberately and proactively realizing our potential to empathize with an “other.” Part one examined how this process helped me 1) draw a model from observation and 2) understand a depressed friend. Part two (the part you’re currently reading) analyzes this process such that we can apply it deliberately throughout the design process. Part three will invite readers to share and discuss how we, as a community, may shape the future of design through the lens of realizing empathy. In my previous article, I introduced the term realizing empathy, to capture the similarities across situations requiring not just empathy, but the realized potential of empathy. In this article, I’ll take that to its logical next step, exploring the role of empathy throughout any creative process. We’ll conclude with...

Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence

What does it mean to be literate in a digital age? While “literacy” conventionally implies reading and writing, we can also apply the concept to new media. By scrutinizing how we use our digital creations, designers can better understand their ability to effect change. It’s been called a publishing platform and a conversation medium, but it’s also been used as a collaborative encyclopedia, a code playground and a canvas for art. Is there anything the web can’t do? And should there be? Analog media (e.g. books, magazines, newspapers) were relatively simple, after all. Everything we needed to know in order to think critically about them came down to reading and writing (or so we believed). But the web is different. Not only does it allow us to create new ideas along existing channels—we can publish and share the digital equivalent of books, magazines, and newspapers, for example—it also allows us to create new channels altogether, such as Twitter. So what does that mean for our conventional definition of literacy? Media theorist Clay Shirky offers a clue. In his foreword to the the book Mediactive, Shirky provides a media-agnostic definition, suggesting that “literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.” This definition resonates with me—indeed, I might go so far as to say it should resonate with all user-centered designers—for not only do we, as designers, strive to understand the way the web is created and consumed, we also wish to understand what it means to create a...