Author’s note: Yes, this has been sitting on my desktop awaiting publishing for over a week. Whatever.
Everyone that I’ve spoken with agrees that the keynotes for the conference were really top notch. Barbara Brennan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Musueum walked us through the process of designing something very different from a website — the ‘America by Air‘ exhibit. It takes about two years to prepare an exhibit, pulling together the script, developing the visual graphics, building the exhibit itself and preparing the various artifacts (old planes, new planes, models, etc.).
A few notes on the process. There is a basic script for the exhibit, but each part of the exhibit needs to stand on it’s own, since there is no control over what people look at, or in which order.
The message of any particular display was broken into several components. There may be a featured object (a plane, a model, etc.). There are highly visible graphic elements that pull out the most salient points. There is detailed information about the display for those interested in reading it. And there are other visual elements (photos, drawings, etc.) that are used to augment the information panels. Each display can speak to the audience at different levels of detail, as appropriate.
Sounds a lot like modeless design in the web world, necessitated by the fact that Google brings visitors directly to any page of your website (see How to Start Customer Research by Mark Hurst, especially the quote “Google has made home pages virtually irrelevant”).
Next up, Kevin Cheng from Yahoo! shared a method for documenting design concepts through comics. Kevin had a kick-ass presentation that made us believe we too could be artists. Reality is a bit more harsh. One of the exercises had us all hand our badge to the person on our right, who proceeded to draw a cartoon portrait of us! The picture Allstate’s Jace Cole drew of me was, well, let’s just say that a stick figure would’ve been an improvement.
The class did make a valid point. The key is to use personas and tell a story. Whether you use a narrative or comic-style storyboarding, the story is the key. How will the user interact? The story explains it more clearly than raw facts and figures ever could.
Information visualization is one of those topics that sounds incredibly dull when expressed in words. Edward Tufte knows better, and so does Michal Migurski of Stamen. He has been working on a number of map-related information mashups, and shared a slew of really interesting ways to look at information — some of which I had seen before; others were new to me and blew me away.
I’ll mention a few that really stood out for me.
- Newsmap – This sucker blew me away. Newsmap takes data from Google News, including the number of articles on a given news item, and creates a tree-view of the news. News with lots of coverage consumes more area. Different categories (world, nation, business, sports, etc.) get different colors. More recent news uses brighter shades; old news gets increasing darker. This is a fabulous way of seeing what’s hot at a glance.
- Fundrace is fascinating, although maybe a little Orwelian. It shows political party contributions by city. Not surprisingly, urban areas tend to support Democrats; rural generally Republicans. Where it really gets fun is when you zoom to the city level. Check out uptown New York and you can see contributions on a building-by-building basis.
- And just to prove that information visualization doesn’t require Web 2.0 magic, there’s Week In Review, which is hand-drawn by a group of friends who meet each week at a different restaurant and sketch out what mattered (to them, at least). Good stuff.
The day wrapped up with a field trip to the Air and Space Museum’s storage and restoration facility, where we got to see them working on graphics production (signage; display panels); restoration of planes, engines and other museum pieces; fabrication of the exhibits and storage of various artifacts. I was struck by two things. First, I was amazed by the size and scope of the facility. Dozens of buildings with tons of equipment and artifacts. It reminded me of that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a forklift carries the Ark away in some nondescript, cavernous government storage facility, never-to-be-seen again.
The second takeaway was that everyone who worked there, from the graphics production, to exhibit fabrication to restoration, all had a love of planes. Many of them were recreational pilots themselves, but all of them had a passion for aviation. And they each had their particularly proud moment. The guy in the restoration shop (who started there in 1974), worked on the restoration of the original Wright brother’s plane. The curator was especially proud of the world globe from Juan Trippe’s office (longtime president of Pan Am airlines). Trivia note: the movie The Aviator uses the actual globe from Trippe’s office, afterwhich it was donated to the Smithsonian.
No matter who you talked to, they had a sense of pride in their work, a love for what they were doing and a passion for doing it well. The clearly saw this as their opportunity to leave a legacy.
A Few Closing Thoughts on UXWEEK
Powerpoint can be effective. The presentations had a consistently high level of quality. They were extremely light on text, and used imagry to support the presentation.
It pays to go outside of the same-old conference circuit. There was a good cross-section of industries represented; even better than what I’ve seen at KM World or similar conferences. The cross-polination of ideas was invaluable. I was amazed at how some of the topics could be very nearly carried over directly into my world.
Interaction doesn’t end with the closing session. Some of the best interaction occurred over a beer hours after the last speaker. Don’t hole up in your hotel; your email can wait. Get out and spend some time with new people. Find out what makes them tick. Learn something new.
Want more? Yeah, I didn’t cover everything. So check out the UXWEEK wiki for even more good stuff.