I'm David Little, a user experience researcher and designer

The Design of Understanding 2013

Posted: January 26, 2013

I attended this year’s Design of Understanding event at St. Bride Library, a one-day conference “looking at how ideas are designed to be more understandable”. Although primarily concerned with information design, it also included talks on digital note taking, architecture and interaction design.

Matt Cottam started things off discussing Tellart’s work on the Chrome Web Lab at the Science Museum. It was interesting to hear about the process and thinking behind this, having visited the exhibition in December; the driving idea was to connect web audiences to physical objects. One of the nice touches from the exhibition I thought was the individual “lab tag” you were issued at the start of the exhibition. You can scan this with your computer’s web cam when you get back home and see everything you created. Here’s my go on the “Universal Orchestra”.

Joe Parry of Cambridge Intelligence spoke on network analysis–primarily from the viewpoint of analysing criminal networks, although the methodology suits any kind of network, from social networks to computer networks. He demoed a visualisation using the KeyLines Javascript library which I’ve made a mental note to check out for a couple of projects I’m working on.

It was great to hear from Phil Gyford about the Samuel Pepys’ diary project which came to an end at the end of December last year, having started back in 2003 in the form of a blog entry per diary entry. It was kind of interesting to reflect that when he started blogs were pretty new–and in the pre-Wordpress era seemed to involve rather horrific coding. Anyway, working as I currently do in the area of the digital humanities, it was particularly interesting to compare the kind of work I get involved with with this more spontaneous, enthusiast and community driven project.

Lloyd Shepherd spoke on digital note taking–the text of his talk is on his blog and definitely worth a look. The gist of the talk is that, although digital note taking is great for capturing information it’s not so great for understanding it. He made the point that “real” notebooks (e.g. Moleskines) have started to become more popular–they offer a more personalised experience and are less homogenous than their electronic counterparts.

I enjoyed Will Stahl-Timmins‘ talk on information graphics and visualisation for science–partly as I’m part-way through a course on data visualisation and also it’s interesting to think about how these can tools can be successfully used in academia where there can be some understandable reluctance to embrace them. Will’s involved in some interesting research looking at the use of information graphics in science communication and spoke about the randomised tests being carried out examining how effectively people retain information communicated in text and graphic forms. Initial results show that people retain graphically-communicated information for longer. “Impact” is an important consideration for any academic project and is considered when being scored in the REF, so Will’s research is definitely worth keeping an eye on for those of us operating within academia.

Another take on data visualisation was presented by Stephanie Posavec. Stephanie considers herself (amongst other things) a “data illustrator”–not focussing on the analytical aspect of data visualisation but thinking about how it can be used to communicate data more emotionally or subjectively. She spoke about the 94 Elements project where she’s using a logical design system to create icons for each of the 94 naturally occurring elements in the periodic table.

I have to admit I didn’t engage that much with the next two talks–maybe my brain was a bit full for the time being, maybe they were too beyond my current interests or maybe it was a post-lunch lull. Not to criticise the speakers of course, this was down to my attention span. The talks would certainly worth checking out if they’re your thing: we had Justin McGuirk on activist architects in Latin America and Beeker Northam on, umm, something else (my apologies).

The last two talks reenergised me–Cait O’Riordan spoke about the BBC’s wonderful  interactive coverage of the 2012 Olympics which was a massive success. The stats on usage were pretty impressive–I can’t remember what they were but I think they can be summarised as “lots”.  One of the interesting observations for me that came out was about user behaviour on the mobile app and mobile website: although they were primarily the same (the app being mainly a wrapper around the mobile website), they were used in very different ways. Users engaged far more with and took more time exploring the mobile app, whilst most traffic to the mobile website was from search engines and involved quick in-out visits to obtain the required information.

For me the most interesting presentation came last–Ben Terrett spoke on the Government Digital Service’s rationalisation of government websites into one main site: www.gov.uk. I’m always inspired and impressed by “user first” projects–particularly if your user base is diverse as the one served by government websites. Ben spoke of some of the motivations of the project coming from the heritage of British information design–think particularly of the tube map and the design of motorway signs–both of which have been emulated in other countries.

Margaret Calvert, one of the road sign designers has become a mentor to the project–and a new screen-optimised version of her font, New Transport is being used to typeset the new website. The team tested various fonts before settling on this one which was particularly effective in terms of legibility, maybe not surprising considering how rigorously tested the original font was–after all it had to be read at 70mph in all weather conditions. For me this goes to show that divisions between graphic design, information design and user experience design can be artificial: typography can have just as significant impact on usability and understanding as many of the other factors we emphasise as interaction designers.

Of course I have to mention the venue too–I’d never been to St. Bride and it was great to have an opportunity to explore both the library and the workshops where you can take courses in printing–I’ve got my eye on a couple already.

Anyway, a great day and I’ve got lots of think about and links to follow up. I’ll be sure to go back next year.

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