Is less more, or just a bore?


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How modernism influences experience architecture today and what a more postmodern version might look like.

This ambitious ten-minute talk from UX Australia 2012 draws on a little architectural theory to help stretch our conceptual model of what UX is, and suggests that a little postmodernism might help us understand and design social interfaces.

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  • This was a ridiculously ambitious 60-slide-long ten-minute talk I gave on the second day of UX Australia 2012. To faithfully recreate the event, do not spend more than 10 seconds on each slide.\n
  • \n
  • The philosophers among you are thinking: Oh God. Please. Not Derrida\n
  • The architects among you are thinking: Oh God. Please. No Ducks!\n
  • The visual designers among you are thinking: Oh God. Please. Not MySpace!\n
  • I promise. There’ll be no Derrida, no more ducks, and while I will reference MySpace, my aim is not to promote it as a design aesthetic. \n
  • I want to capture and caricature the attitudes of modernism that we have inherited in talking about UX today. \n\nI don’t want to ridicule them, because I strongly feel the influence of these values on me and my work.\nBut I need you to be aware of them, to put the idea of a postmodern UX into relief.\n\nTo start, we’ll go back to the 19th century...\n
  • ... to the Art critic, John Ruskin, who preached a return to craftsmanship and honest labour. Most of the ideas in modern architecture come from an attempt to reconcile Ruskin’s vision of architectural integrity with modern industrial-scale production.\n
  • In modernist architecture Ruskin’s maxim came to inspire Architects like Mies van der Rohe to construct buildings in a way that made the principles and materials of their construction apparent. The Seagram building, with its visible steel girders, and minimal plate glass exterior, is the pinnacle of this view.\n
  • When we talk about being authentically digital, we are recapitulating that modernist sentiment.\n.. and Shane Morris’s point about Metro being a design language for developers only makes the analogy stronger\n\nImage:\n
  • Adolf Loos talked in moral terms about the wasted effort and resources involved in adorning buildings in ornamentation that contributed nothing to their usefulness. \n\nImage:wikipedia\n
  • \n
  • This is one of the most famous maxims in architecture. By it, Sullivan meant “the result of design should derive directly from its purpose” (Wikipedia,\n\nImage: Public domain\n
  • For modernist architects, this focus on functionality freed them from a stultifying tradition of conforming to historical architectural forms.\n\nModernists believe that all conventions are open to criticism, in terms of how well they satisfy real functional needs. Familiar patterns are at best placeholders for more rigorously derived structure. At worst, their very familiarity makes them suspicious, because they signal a laziness of design.\n\nImages:\n
  • The only authority that is recognized in a modernist process is that of experimentation and evidence. Also, modernist buildings are not supposed to symbolise the powers that funded them. They are supposed to embody the uses to which they are put. \n
  • This is why we do task analyses, and it’s because everyone thinks form follow function, that we get to influence business decisions as much as we do.\n\n By Nina Matthews Photography, 2010\n
  • There’s a bunch of ways of interpreting this, but at its heart this is a call for simplicity.\n
  • For UXers, simple and usable are practically synonymous.\n
  • But more than this, there are sense of responsibility built into the call for simplicity - a responsibility to resolve differences and conflicts.\n\n
  • Like resolving the requirements of opposed territorial business units\n\\n
  • Or resolving a diverse and complex audience into a clear set of customer requirements.\n
  • Simplicity isn’t just a design aesthetic, it’s a design value.\n
  • “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time.” Kitch is the difference between UX and its evil twin... \n\nImage:\n
  • display advertising. \n\n
  • And everyone thinks that kitch is what killed MySpace\n
  • Ok, so let’s look at what an alternative might look like...\n
  • Let’s start with simplicity. For postmodern architects, modernist simplicity is itself often at odds with honesty.\n
  • The Seagram building is not true to its materials. Those steel girders on the outside aren’t actual structural, they couldn’t be, all structural steel needs to be clad in concrete to be fireproof. Mies added more steel to represent the structural foundation of the building.\n
  • At it’s worse, a modernist process is just a cover for ideology\n
  • Against the modernist desire for a “simplicity on the other side of complexity”, postmodern architects like Robert Venturi think that there’s no reason to presume such a thing is possible, and if it is possible, it might not be such a good thing.\n\nI’m not going to make a judgement call, but I do want to investigate what UX might benefit from exploring these ideas.\n\nLet’s start by looking at what Venturi means by richness.\n
  • These tensions - these cognitive dissonances - are not a failure of design, not if they genuinely express modern experience.\n\nI could talk about this quote all day, so I’m going to constrain myself to talking about fragments.\n\n
  • “This is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication through pure architecture.” Venturi writes. By “heroic” communication, Venturi means something complete, that symbolises our shared values and vision of who we are and where we are going.\n\nInstead he wants an architecture of fragments, symbolised the ugly and the ordinary.\n\n
  • A decorated shed, where the symbolism is tacked-on to an ordinary building.\n
  • The AT&T Building in NYC\nThe RMIT Building in Melbourne \nBoth mix traditional and modern symbolism.\n
  • Ultimately, simplicity gets in the way of architecture being meaningful.\n
  • So, as a postmodern architect you end up thinking about meaning and language.\n\nI’m going to talk about one theory of meaning that kind of sits between modernism and postmodernism, but which is a good starting point and fairly easy to understand.\n
  • Signs aren’t meaningful on their own. They only become meaningful as part of a system - a grammar - that distinguishes them from one another and governs their relationships. The sounds that make up a language aren’t meaningful, it’s the way their combined that matters.\n
  • When architects think of structuralism, they might think of something like the Nakagin Capsule Tower, at Shinbashi Tokyo Japan, designed by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972. Source: Wiiii (2008),\n\n\n
  • \n
  • Maybe we should be thinking of Pinterest as a kind of structuralist experience architecture... a study in repetition using one of the smallest possible units of sociable content.\n
  • This may be why it’s so hard it is to say what Pinterest is for. \n\n
  • This absence of intention resonates with me, because I’ve been spending the last year working on sites whose business model depends on encouraging browsing behaviour.\n\nBy browsing, I don’t mean simply using the primary and secondary navigation to find something in a particular category. I mean simply wasting time, hanging out. \n\nThat behaviour is really hard to articulate in terms of tasks. \n\n
  • Structuralism opens up the possibility that there may be behaviours that can’t be analysed into tasks.\nThe most effective UI element in the world for facilitating browsing behaviour is probably the right-hand column of the Maybe a post-modern approach like structuralism is the only way to get at the way this provides a meaningful browsing experience for users, which would make it the Las Vegas strip of Experience Architecture.\n
  • Bill Derouchey talked about the limits of empathy yesterday, and I think that’s a good postmodernist theme.\n
  • Modernists presume the possibility of discovering an agreed set of values, or a shared story.\nPostmodernists are skeptical about the aspiration to discover such a story. \n\n\n
  • There is no “Man” to build for.\n\nPostmodernists are also, as a result, suspicious of the concept of anthropology as the science of such a “Man”. \nFortunately, you can do great anthropology without buying into this. (When you’re done here, go listen to Stephen Cox’s talk. It’s awesome.)\n
  • So, there are limits to empathy. There’s no “we” who can act as a unit, as the poster suggests.\nBut instead of talking about compassion - like Bill - a postmodernist might talk about sociability.\n\nBut what is sociability, and how’s it different to solidarity.\n
  • Well, it turns out Judd put it perfectly yesterday. Getting along without agreeing is a great description of sociability.\n
  • So, to promote sociality, we need spaces where conflicting views on something can coexist, in tension, without needing to be reconciled.\nDesigns walls are a good example of this, which we already recognize as useful, but this architecture of sociality extends down into the very structure of our deliverables. \n
  • But the websites we build are heroic and iconic.\n
  • Our processes reflect this need for sociality more and more, they are becoming less and less modernist, but our interface designs rarely reflect the benefits of this kind of messiness.\n
  • Fragment makes sociable cooperation possible.\n
  • Which of these wikipedia pages encourages better user engagement - the long, highly-polished article on the left, or the stub on the right? Surely, the stub, right?\n
  • And twitter, another incredibly successful social platform without any clear set of use cases, requires that we communicate in fragments.\n
  • \n
  • Special thanks to Barry Saunders and Matt Delprado for early and insightful feedback. \n\nSome people have very kindly asked for a longer version of this talk. \n\nHere are a few things I cut or never got around to writing that might be in that longer talk:\n* Why Apple’s iCal is not simply a throwback to skeuomorphism (aka what on earth my first slide means)\n* How responsive design is like the George Pompidou Centre\n* A postmodern take on design principles and persuasive design\n* What Sustainable Design can learn from the architecture of complexity (thanks heaps to Rosenfeld for the free book!)\n* How chaos theory might change the way we design navigation\n* Alien phenomenology and the possibility of an object-orientated UX \n\nPlease message me on twitter, or email me at anotherjustin at gmail dot com, and let me know what you’d like to hear more about. \n\n
  • Is less more, or just a bore?

    1. 1. Is less more or just a bore? Ceci n’est pas une calendar Justin Tauber Profero Sydney UX Australia 2012
    2. 2. orhow modernism influencesexperience architecture +what a more postmodernversion might look like
    3. 3. Oh God.Please.Not Derrida.
    4. 4. No Derrida.
    5. 5. 1.Symptoms of modernism
    6. 6. Truth to nature& honest craft- John Ruskin
    7. 7. “Authentically digital”
    8. 8. Ornamentis a crimeAdolf Loos
    9. 9. We talk in similarlymoral terms aboutcognitive loadbeing a burdenand a waste
    10. 10. Form followsfunctionLouis Sullivan
    11. 11. Form follows function... not tradition
    12. 12. Form follows function... and not power
    13. 13. Form followstask analysis
    14. 14. Less is more- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
    15. 15. Design resolves differences and conflicts
    16. 16. [handshake]
    17. 17. [stars colliding]
    18. 18. Simplicity enablesunderstanding and cooperation
    19. 19. Kitsch is evilClement Greenberg
    20. 20. MySpace isn’t designed- Tim Brown, IDEO CEO
    21. 21. 2. Symptoms ofpostmodernism
    22. 22. Simplicity often conceals
    23. 23. As Experts with Ideals, who pay lip serviceto the social sciences, they build for Manrather than for people - this means, tosuit themselves...- Robert Venturi
    24. 24. I am for richnessof meaning overclarity of meaningRobert Venturi
    25. 25. an inclusive rather than an exclusive kindof architecture where there is room forthe fragment, for contradiction, forimprovisation, and for the tensions theseproduce- Robert Venturi
    26. 26. An Architecture of Fragments
    27. 27. Less is a boreRobert Venturi
    28. 28. Fragmented,but meaningful
    29. 29. Structuralist theory of meaning:Signs are only meaningfulin opposition to each another
    30. 30. Dutch structuralism is about makingopen-ended building structures by therepeated use of basic elements ... tofacilitate multiple uses and future growthand change.- Dirk Van Den Heuvel
    31. 31. For a structuralist,meaning does NOT derivefrom user intention
    32. 32. Not browsing for something,but browsing for anything
    33. 33. You can’t doa task analysis ofbrowsing behaviour
    34. 34. Fragmented empathy
    35. 35. Suspicious of simplicity based onagreement or identity
    36. 36. As Experts with Ideals, who pay lip serviceto the social sciences, they build for Manrather than for people - this means, to suitthemselves...- Robert Venturi
    37. 37. Forego solidarityfor sociability
    38. 38. In lockdown, we rarelyagreed on anything, but welearned to get along- Judd Garrett
    39. 39. Our processes are becoming less and lessmodernist, but our interface designs rarelyreflect the benefits of this kind ofmessiness.
    40. 40. Fragments are more sociable than wholes
    41. 41. Postmodernism has a different conceptionof socialPostmodern Architecture offers adifferent tradition of how to design asocial interface
    42. 42. Thanks. Let’s talk.Justin TauberProfero Sydney@brtrx