PoetPainter - Thoughts
Wednesday February 27, 2013 / 2 Comments

2012, the Year in Review


While this blog rarely gets any attention from me, I have continued to write and contribute in other places, both online and around the world. Before I slip much further in 2013, I though it might be worthwhile to gather some of the highlights and details that made 2012 a truly blessed and wonderful year for me.

First off, the writing…

In December 2011, Alex Duloz invited me to contribute to The Pastry Box. His pitch:

Each year, The Pastry Box will gather 30 people who are each influential in their field and ask them to share 12 thoughts regarding their work (one per month, that is). Those 360 thoughts… will then be published every day throughout the year at a rate of one per day, starting January 1st 2012.

The challenge of producing 1 new thought a month, on anything web related, seemed like a reasonable commitment (and one that would get me in the habit of writing again). What I didn’t anticipate was just how useful this would turn out for me, personally. The format encourages a more “editorial” style of writing. Sans comments, I felt free to jump on a virtual soapbox and rant about whatever crossed my mind. As it turned out, this format enabled me to uncover several topics that are, apparently, very important to me.

The importance of learning and curiosity surfaced as a recuring theme in nearly half of my posts. A few of my favorites:

Unspurprisingly, I also wrote several posts related to sensemaking and the interactive, visual display of information:

(This idea of designing for understanding is, by the way, the topic of my next book and a subject I’ve been giving numerous talks and workshops on–stay tuned!)

I was also surprised and a bit curious to discover what topics seemed to resonate (or strike a nerve!) with a large number of people. Two posts in particular seemed to get a LOT of attention:

This last post actually started as a comment in response to a question posed by Jason Putorti in Nov 2011.

Designers, what do you want to tell all those developer/founders that are looking to hire you? Any stories or bad hiring / recruiting experiences you want to share?

In the end, nearly every post I contributed to The Pastry Box turned out to be of a reflective nature, the kind of things that might still be interesting and relevant 5 or 10 years down the road, like what I look for in candidates) or when is the best time to write a book?

About halfway through the project, I started noticing the meta-narrative that is created when you read a series of thoughts, written over a span of time, from one person. In this way, you start to see what things an individual notices and find interesting, which in itself is a new post of sorts. To this end, I’ve thought about collecting these thoughts into one publication, perhaps a self-publication for myself and some close friends and family. There was a brief attempt to collect all the 2012 thoughts into a book, but sadly, there wasn’t enough interest. Oh well.

Here are all the thoughts I wrote for the Pastry Box.

Outside of The Pastry Box, I’ve contributed to a few other places, most notably Quora.com. Perhaps the most surprising response I got was to my answer to the question: What are the best UI elements (controls, patterns, etc.) that have cropped up in modern web sites and web apps recently? (1140 votes and counting!)

Speaking, and more Speaking!

6 new presentations in 13 cities, including Dublin, Rome, London, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and (drumroll) Israel! There was also some domestic travel, I’m looking at you Memphis, Boston, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, MSP.

It’s hard to pick a favorite talk or venue. But, being invited to give the closing plenary at the Euro IA was, in addition to being a great honor, a great chance for me to refocus and crystalize a lot of my own interests. I chose to focus on the theme of curiosity, and how this one trait is drives learning and the entrepreneurial spirit. This topic also affored me the chance to share the things I’m curious about:

This was followed a few months later by my first ever TEDx talk—another great honor for me.

I have to say, I spent more time working in this one 15 minute talk than perhaps any other I’ve ever given. Between research and rehearsal, 100s of hours normally go into developing a new talk–this talk took things to a whole new level!

The biggest compliment I received on this talk came from my sister, who commented:

I finally understand what my little brother does!

I should also mention a talk I’ve only given once, at the IA Summit, about our brains and perception: “What’s Your Perception Strategy? Why It’s Not All About Content”

This talk is my response to the notion that “It’s all about content!” (it’s not). I wanted to reframe the conversation and get people thinking about how our brains come to perceive and make sense of external stimulus. Yes, content is very important, but perceptions of said content trump everything else. This is one of those ideas that, once it sinks in, totally changes how you approach just about everything you do—from designs to social interactions. I should also add, there’s a danger with most talks on the brain in that’s little practical knowledge to use in our daily work; while this was more about a single idea, I think I succeeded at delivering some practical tips near the end of the talk. I had a great time with this one, and would love to give it again. And it involves local artisan chocolate. Mmm.

2012 saw me talking mostly about information visualization, or more accurately, getting from information to understanding. Here are two slidedecks I’ve shared on this subject:

While there is some overlap in these two decks, this first one is more conceptual, given as a keynote at BigD.

…while this is the more pragmatic version, with more examples of what I’m advocating:

My biggest challenge with these talks has been figuring out how to describe what, exactly, I’m talking about. It sits somewhere in between print infographics (the good kind!) and data visualization. At the core, it’s about displaying information in a way that is highly visual, interactive, and ultimately conveys meaning and understanding, something missing from most sites today. Based on feedback from various folks, I’m feeling more comfortable with the latest title and description of this talk:

Design for Understanding: Solving the Small Data Problems There’s a small a small data problem, and we’re partly to blame. As IAs and designers, we put a lot of content in front of users. But how good are we at helping people make sense of that content once it gets published to the page? Sure, we provide search, sort, and filter tools, and we rely on common design patterns (lists, grid views and the like), but are these really the best ways to make sense of complex information? Be honest, how useful were these tools the last time you shopped for a new TV or digital camera? Ready access to information is great, but we need better tools to make sense of it all, tools that let us explore content, in rich, visual ways. In this workshop, Stephen will share the process he uses to create simple visual representations to help people make informed choices and understand complex information. In the same way that charts and data visualizations help us sift through numeric data, we need similar tools that allow us to interact with content and concepts. In brief, design patterns such as spreadsheets, lists, dashboards and grid views suffice for getting information onto a screen. However, when it comes to making sense of this information, these same patterns hold us back from designing great experiences; generic patterns are poor substitutes for a good custom visualization, especially one designed for the content being displayed.

And if this sounds interesting to you, be sure and sign up for the workshop! ;-)

Closing out the year…
As it this wasn’t already a crazy and blessed year, four more noteworthy events happened, nearly all in December.

  1. I was invited to speak at Time-Life, to the heads of all their online publications. That’s People, InStyle, Time, CNN, Real Simple, Fortune, Sports Illustrated—you get the idea!
  2. I was interviewed by Forrester for their report on Digital Customer Experience Trends To Watch, 2013. I’ve been a huge fan of Forrester since the 1st startup I joined back in the late 90s. To be interviewed by them was a great honor for me, personally.
  3. Out of nowhere, Christina Wodtke as me to answer “What is UX?” for a reboot of the Boxes and Arrows site. She caught me at a good moment, and I pounded out a rant that changed very little from initial draft through final publication (go ahead, read my response –- it’s not what you think!)
  4. I was invitied to contribute to a last minute project: UXMas! Think 24 thoughts (from people much smarter than me!) for the festive month of December. And one last zinger— I was to write for the 24th! Given such an significant day, I decided to pull out all the stops and share the single best exercise I know of for crafting a better user experience. The topic? UX Design, Role-playing & Micromoments (This, by the way, is the topic of a new talk I’ve now given at two 2013 events in Chicago and Israel.)

Anything else?

Oh yeah, 2012 was great in other ways: Great clients and project work. Great family stuff going on, including a move to a new house! But, that’s all for another time and place…



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  1. On Feb 28, 10:48 AM Jeremy Abbott said

    Nice wrap-up. I caught several of these articles/slides/videos along the way and am adding a few others to my list to read/watch. Congrats on 2012 and good luck with 2013.

  2. On Feb 28, 01:21 PM sljtwigge said

    Rich post! Added this to my reading list. I attended your TEDx in Utrecht and we had a very brief chat during the break. I’m starting a new job in 2 weeks and I’m pretty sure I landed it by discussing some of your ideas that I’ve been mulling on since then.

    Thanks for publishing this!


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