Notes from Midwest UX 2015 Day 1

These are my notes from day 1 of Midwest UX, held October 2-3, 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Table of Contents:

Read More

Experimenting with Pattern Libraries

I’ve been experimenting with pattern libraries lately. They’re useful to have so developers can put things together quickly without reinventing the wheel (I once provided a pattern library for a team that had reimplemented some of their basic design patterns at least 6 different ways before I helped them unify everything) and they help the design team think about things consistently and meaningfully (having to add another pattern to the library makes you start questioning why this particular region needs a different style). But they can be awkward to put together and difficult to make sure all of the design changes continue to be added over time–and once they’re out of date, they’re worse than useless.

I’ve recently discovered Pattern Lab, which produces a pretty nice basic pattern library off of a bunch of templates, and that solves the first problem, but the problem of maintaining it over time remains. In fact, the problem could even be worse–with something entirely custom, you might be able to build it off of the same template system that’s used in the real site, so there only needs to be a change in one place, but with the generator you’re almost certainly using a separate code base, so all changes need to be made twice.

So I’ve been playing with making a conversion script that takes the patterns from Pattern Lab and converts it for a couple of different content management systems I use. So far I have it working for Django, Jekyll, and Statamic; I have tried but failed to get it working in Perch and Drupal because some of the things that need to be done in those environments is difficult to automate based on the Mustache templates that Pattern Lab uses.

The code for the script is on Github, and I’d be delighted if you used it on your own projects, forked it, modified it, added more output CMSs, etc. if it is a thing you would find useful. I hope it’s well enough documented to get started, but if you have questions, please ask :)

Notes from Web Design Day 2015

These are my notes from Web Design Day, held on June 12 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Table of Contents:

Read More

Notes from IA Summit 2015 Day 3

These are my notes from day 3 of the Information Architecture Summit, held from April 22-26 2015 in Minneapolis.

Table of Contents:

Read More

Notes from IA Summit 2015 Day 2

These are my notes from day 2 of the Information Architecture Summit, held from April 22-26 2015 in Minneapolis.

Table of Contents:

Read More

Notes from IA Summit 2015 Day 1

These are my notes from day 1 of the Information Architecture Summit, held from April 22-26 2015 in Minneapolis.

Table of Contents:

Read More

Reading List 2

I've been migrating my blog from Wordpress to Jekyll, and in the process I've been going over some of my old half-written drafts. This one is from 2011, and all it had in it were two links. I have no idea what I originally intended to say about them, but they're both interesting, and they're both roughly about finding failures early to get to a better outcome. This is something I try to do in my own design process: embrace the possibility that I am wrong, try alternatives, and maybe I'll find something better.

Pixar's Motto: Going From Suck to Nonsuck

Pixar's film development process involves many iterations of storyboards before they even get to a script, and even then they still iterate and critique and may still be working out problems in the story shortly before release. The idea is to "be wrong as fast as we can," and every piece of the film will be picked apart repeatedly before they finally get to something good.

Visual vs Action Oriented Design

This article is about game design, and in particular about how often games start out with a general idea of how it looks and feels, which are easier to sell, but neglect the basic mechanics, which are ultimately what make a game fun. Focusing on the mechanics can allow game designers to iterate faster to get to something fun, like Pixar's storyboards. However, the prototypes will be ugly and abstract and harder for executives and players to connect with.

What are design docs?

I've talked to several people lately about potentially helping projects they are working on with the design. As a designer coming into a project, it's helpful for me if I can see the design work you've done already so I don't duplicate work, step on toes, or go in a different direction than has already been decided on. A lot of people have no idea what sort of thing I'm looking for though, so here are some things I find helpful (though by no means an exhaustive list!), and several of them can be useful to non-designers, too!

Note that it's absolutely ok if your project doesn't have these. They're good to have, but if you don't, that's good to know, too, and a designer can help you create them!

Project Goals

Basically, what problem are you trying to solve? What are your overall goals, how do you plan to achieve them, how will you know if you're successful in achieving them?

Ideally, a design starts with some problem you're trying to solve, then do research to verify and clarify the problem, come up with a number of possible solutions, and then validate which one will solve the problem best. But to be perfectly honest, the only projects I've worked on like that were in design school. Most projects seem to start with a pretty hazy idea of the project goals, if that, then jump straight to how to implement the solution. That's ok, but you do need to figure out what problem you're solving before you know if your solution is solving it well or not.

I've found these things to be helpful not only to me in designing and validating designs, but also for keeping conversations and features focused. Goals help you decide what work is important, what isn't, and what features outright detract from your purpose.


Any research involved in creating the goals and plans above, or research suggesting changes in your audience over time and how people are actually using your product. This can include contextual research, interviews, usability studies, market research, surveys, statistics and analytics, or really, any other work you've done talking to people about the problems you're solving and how they use your product—it doesn't have to be formal, anything you have is useful.

If you don't have the up front research about your goals—or even if you have, since things can change over time—it might be a good idea to have your new designer do that now with the people who are currently using your project. You may find out that it does poorly on the things you thought you were doing, which can sting if you're really attached to the idea, but that people are using it to solve an entirely different problem, which can be really enlightening. These are good things to know, and you can take them back and revisit your goals and solutions.

Style Guides

These can be visual and granular like what colors to use and how to style buttons, more structural, like what context calls for what sorts of widgets, or verbal, like what tone of voice to use in different parts of the interface. They can also include design assets like logos, photoshop templates, color palettes, etc. Here are some examples of nice ones:

Style guides are useful to maintain consistency across the whole system and help developers put new pages together faster using existing patterns, but to remain useful they have to be kept up to date with new design patterns as they are added.

Other Design Artifacts

  • information architecture (think sitemap, or more generally, what things should be grouped together?)
  • interaction descriptions or diagrams (when this page is displayed, if user clicks this do this...)
  • sketches, wireframes, mockups, and prototypes
  • discussion surrounding all of the above

If you haven't had a designer before, you may not have anything formal, but even just sketches, annotated screenshots, and white board diagrams can be helpful. And in particular, if there's an online record of the discussion on new features, for instance why something was done one way and not another, that can be particularly useful in absence of more formally documented style guides and research.

Reading List

I frequently have a number of tabs open with long articles that I read throughout the day, and in the interests of keeping more of my thoughts in a space I actually control here are some interesting things I've read lately. There may or may not be other posts like this in the future.


An interesting dive into the scholarship of what the Americas might have been like prior to the arrival of Columbus. The article makes no conclusions, but presents several scholars who believe that 1) many parts of the American natural environment, including the Amazon rain forest and the great plains were in fact human-constructed, and 2) the Americas were much more populous than originally believed, with possibly over 90% mortality from European diseases spreading ahead of the explorers, giving the false impression of an untouched wilderness. I don't know if that's true, and probably we'll never know, especially since the scholarship can't be dissociated from political and moral implications, but it's interesting to contemplate.

How White People Got Made

An argument that whiteness as a race--vs individual country affiliations like English, Irish, French, Dutch, etc.--was invented in colonial Virginia as a divide-and-conquer technique to keep the colonists from all rebelling together. Now, I don't know that I'd go quite that far, there was certainly language about civilized European Christians vs "savages" before that, but there's probably some truth to it too. Certainly the effect of dividing a group by giving some a small privilege and taking away from others has been replicated many times, e.g. in the Stanford prison experiment.

Both of which remind me of this, which I read some time ago:

How presidential elections are impacted by a 100 million year old coastline

Richer soil from the ancient coastline led to more slave-owning plantations which now means more black voters in that area. Our culture is forever shaped by all of history and all of pre-history.

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons

I was opposed to sending soldiers to Iraq, but since we sent them, it's our responsibility to take care of them. Starting a war on false premises led the military command to fail in that responsibility, and that is unacceptable.

"You Are Not Alone Across Time": Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

Our culture doesn't talk about sorrow much, but it's a normal part of life, especially in traumatic circumstances. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing, that you aren't the only one, that this isn't a singular, personal failure, is huge.

Kafka’s Cognitive Realism

I haven't read this, but I'm delighted that it exists. Kafka-inspired philosophy of mind meets embodied cognition.

Against the Grain

A roundup of research about gluten intolerance. Gluten-free diets seem so faddy, but the article points out that 1) many of the people who are "intolerant" to gluten probably aren't, but may have a sensitivity to some other compound in wheat; 2) there is an increase in diagnosed gluten intolerance that probably can't be explained by better awareness alone; 3) there is substantially more gluten in commercial bread and other foods than there was before it was mass-manufactured.

Photo essay: What’s growing in West Virginia’s urban ruins?

Repurposing abandoned urban wastelands for farming. I found myself wondering about other times this has happened in human history, e.g. Europe after the fall of Rome. Farms -> cities -> farms ->cities -> farms.


Not an essay or book, just a toy. I loved my Spirograph when I was a kid, this is the web version. I'm disappointed that it doesn't work on my iPad, but it's still great.


Finally got around to uploading some pictures from the last year.

Niagara Falls