#17 How to Visualize Layered Data to Show Holistic Relationships

I worked on infographics for one chapter of UNDERSTANDING USA, a TED conference textbook back in the year 2000. So why talk about infographics from such an old book now?

The loss of my favorite teacher, Krzysztof Lenk, gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I worked on under his direction back then. What I realized was that there are so many insights from this project that can still be applied to today’s work of UX designers and information designers. I would like to share my re-discovery of the project.


Book: UNDERSTANDING USA, in 3 color variations

UNDERSTANDING USA was a textbook for TEDX conference, which took place in Monterey, California, on February 23–26, 2000. This was the same conference where Global Village (which I wrote about in my last article) was presented. I initially worked on UNDERSTANDING USA before Global Village.

In 1999, Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn from Dynamic Diagrams were invited by Richard Saul Wurman (the founder of TED) to be part of a team of 12 information architects to contribute to the book. I had an opportunity to work with Krzysztof and Paul on this project.

A copy of TEDX UPDATE letter by Richard Saul Wurman, 11/13/1998

Below is a quote from Richard Saul Wurman on how he introduced the concept of UNDERSTANDING USA in his letter to the contributors on November 13, 1998. He initially called it “Atlas of Understanding.”

The Book: Atlas of Understanding:

To answer the complex TEDX questions, my staff and I are researching government statistics, recent studies by foundations and think-tanks, timely articles by leading journalists and relevant material from industry groups and trade associations.The resulting book will be the Atlas of Understanding — a comprehensive fact-based guide to the fruits of our research. The Atlas will be the TEDX Bible, its blueprint, its compass and its yardstick — striving to be Solomonic in its fairness and impartiality.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking of this book’s neutrality will translate into something dry, academic and boring. On the contrary, I intend to make the Atlas a showpiece, a demonstration of how complex data can be accessible, engaging and entertaining — without sacrificing its integrity or its nuances. How? There exists within the upper echelon of America’s graphic designers an elite group I call the Information Architects. These talented designers (some of whom are profiled in my 1997 book Information Architects) will condense the TEDX research into its most revealing and informative components. Their extraordinary graphs, maps, video, computer simulations and a host of other media will bring the TEDX information to life. The Atlas will be like a master class in effective information design. Trust me; it won’t be boring.


TEDX Eleven broad social issue areas

When Krzysztof and I visited Richard Saul Wurman’s house in Newport, Rhode Island, we were handed over a box full of statistics, hundreds of pages. The topic our team got assigned was “Global Economy / Foreign Trade / Immigration / Balance of Payments / Business / Workforce / Jobs”, among eleven broad social issue areas defined by Richard to be covered by the TEDX Conference.

Deep dive into piles of statistic data

A glimpse of actual statistical data provided by Richard Saul Wurman for the project

Typically, most design works start with content that is already curated, edited, and selected by a client, an editor, or a writer. However, in this project, we were able to start from which statistics to pick and choose from piles of raw data, loosely organized based on broad questions provided by Richard Saul Wurman as a guide.

Key questions provided by Richard Saul Wurman

Obviously, in order to pick and choose, you first need to fully understand all the statistics packed in the box. This by itself was a lot of work. But it was a lot of fun too, getting immersed deeply into the sea of data.

In the box, the statistics were organized by folders based on topics. Krzysztof would give me one or two folders at a time, and I would take those home, scrutinize all the data, take notes, hand-drawn graphs and charts out of tables, and playback my learnings to him at the next meeting at his studio.

A glimpse of hand-drawn sketches made for UNDERSTANDING USA

When I went through this data-immersion process, I gradually started to paint a picture, started to connect dots. Then I was hit by various “ah-ha” moments when various connected dots came together all of the sudden and started to shape a new meaning.


Visualizing layered information effectively and holistically to show its inter-relationships

Why do U.S. foreign trade gain a little and lose a lot? — one of the spreads from UNDERSTANDING USA

One of the interesting things from an information design perspective that came out from this project was how to visualize layered information effectively and create a holistic view of encapsulated data and their relationships. The above spread showed data about foreign trade, based on a simple question: Why did U.S. foreign trade gain a little and lose a lot?

The spread was designed in a way so that a viewer naturally went through a three-step progression in order to fully understand the information. The page greeted its viewer first by (A) introducing a basic definition of foreign trade, showing what trade surplus and deficit meant through a simple diagram. Then it continued to (B) a basic concept of a balance of trade, top countries that U.S. traded, and how the U.S. had huge trade deficits.

Information architecture: 3 step progression A>B>C

After these introduction made by A and B, the third step, (C) a highlight of the story was represented on the right page in the form of a pair of three-dimensional diagrams, which illustrated a contrasting two diagrams side by side, one showing the top five countries that U.S. had trade surpluses against, the other depicting the top five countries that the U.S. had trade deficits against, as of February 1999.

These three-dimensional diagrams attempted to highlight stark contrasts at multiple levels altogether, such as:

  • An overall trade surplus vs. deficit (and the deficit was overwhelmingly large)
  • Among the top five countries with a U.S. deficit, Japan and China stood out significantly
  • Among the top five countries with a U.S. surplus, the Netherlands stood out slightly, but no match for how Japan and China stood out in deficit
  • Machinery and transport equipment was the biggest category in both surplus and deficit, with a deficit from Japan being the largest by far

Now, some people might question the use of three-dimensionality incorporated here. But our team, primarily Krzysztof and myself, concluded that this three-dimensional approach enabled not only an aesthetically intriguing visual impact but also a meaningful interrelationship between complex layered data. As a result, while it did require some time to decode the meaning of the diagram, we were able to create a holistic view of the foreign trade problems that U.S. faced at the time, presenting all the above in one pair of diagrams.

Below outlined the basic process our team went through from the data analysis to the final design.

Process: understanding raw data to visualize, define, pick and iterate the design

Making information understandable to humans — Holistic overview, broad patterns, and interrelationships

Today, we live in a high-paced information world, where a huge amount of data is constantly captured via sensors, collected via various software, analyzed via machine learning algorithms, and then visualized through computer automation. We live in a world where data visualization is ubiquitous.

More than ever, we need designers to design frameworks for these data visualizations to accommodate ever-increasing demands. Because most of these data visualizations require data to be fed into “template designs” automatically, it’s getting out of designers’ controls.

Computers have a superior ability to perform astronomically complex and massive calculations within a second. But at the end of the day, it’s humans who make the good use of those data collected, calculated, and presented automatically by computers. In order for us humans to grasp the meaning of data, we need to visualize data in a way that humans can comprehend.

Humans are bad at precision and massive calculations. What humans are good at, however, are seeing a forest as a whole, rather than precisely counting how many trees make up the forest. We seek a holistic overview, broad patterns, and trends, interrelationships between various data points. These holistic overview, broad patterns and trends, and interrelationships between various data points are what we base our actions on. These are the types of things that designers are responsible for. And I believe these are the areas that we as humans are still better at over computers.


Designing for a user naturally puts the user and the content at the center

Because 12 designers (information architects) were invited and designed each assigned chapter of the book, the book as a whole ended up a bit chaotic, even though the information contained was really amazing, and it certainly became an entertaining showpiece as Richard Saul Wurman envisioned. It was really interesting to see how various information architects ended up trying to flex their visual muscles with cool effects, vibrant colors and beautiful pages. On the contrary, Dynamic Diagrams remained grounded with a more controlled, classic visual design style, focusing on the content rather than presentation effects to wow the viewers. Ironically, Dynamic Diagram stood out from the rest.

Example pages from other information architects, UNDERSTANDING USA

The above-left spread was designed by Ramana Rao, presenting “Food: How did food production keep pace with population growth? How much of what kinds of proteins do we consume?” The page was beautifully designed, so it was successful in attracting viewers into the page in the first place. However, a dominant photograph took too much attention away from the graphs themselves, which made the graphs look insignificant.

The above-right was designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, visualizing “Transportation: How do Americans get around?” The sculptural object looked intriguing because it was so unusual. Again, it was successful in stimulating the viewer’s curiosity, but at the same time, the way the statistical graph was mapped onto the surface of such an irregular form factor made it hard to read.

This goes back to a principle of user-centered design that became common practice for today’s designers, primarily UX designers.

Whether it’s a user experience for a digital product, a data visualization, or infographics, or any products, the design should never be treated as a “designer’s playground” to selfishly satisfy themselves. Designers should always work FOR users/viewers/audiences. Design is just a vehicle to deliver the message to its users/viewers. When that was successfully done without ego, the design itself recedes to the background, almost becoming transparent, so that a viewer is fully immersed with the content itself.

These insights are what I re-discovered from a 20-year-old print-based infographics project, the importance of putting a user and the content at the center as a designer, which is the very essence of user-centered design. In order to properly execute this, you need to go through a process of content analysis to acquire a deep understanding of the content. And finally, this deep understanding of the content gives you an ability to present a holistic overview of the information in a meaningful way so that humans can easily comprehend and act upon.

I am grateful that I had a chance to reflect on this project now at the beginning of the new decade and share my journey with you.

Chapter cover and all the page spreads from Business chapter, UNDERSTANDING USA

Here’s a PDF version of business chapter of UNDERSTANDING USA.


A bit more background…

Profile of Krzysztof and Paul from UNDERSTANDING USA

Richard Saul Wurman is an architect, information designer, a founder of TED. He is also an author of Information Anxiety, one of early books that pointed out the problem that we all face in today’s world: information overload, and resulting information anxiety. He coined the term “Information Architect”.

UNDERSTANDING USA was a textbook for the TEDX Conference in Monterey California, on February 2000. Richard Saul Wurman invited 12 information architects to design infographics of various social issues, including Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn from Dynamic Diagrams. Krzysztof was one of my thesis advisors at RISD.

This article was originally published on Medium in Nightingale on 3/24/2020.


#16 UX Resource Map: a holistic perspective on UX resources to help aspiring to-be-UX designers

There’s so much out there, I don’t even know where to start.

This is how you feel when you want to become a UX designer and want to make the first move. I know, it’s overwhelming, right? We now live in a world of information overload, which gives us information anxiety.

This UX Resource Map will help you understand what resources are currently available and what path may be the right fit for you, so that you can make an informed decision appropriate for your current needs moving forward to become a UX designer.

Obviously, the lists here are not exhaustive by any means, but it should give you a birds-eye-view to get started with your own research and journey.

UX resources are roughly grouped into these 5 categories:

  1. College degree programs
  2. Bootcamps
  3. Online courses
  4. Books
  5. Blogs

Cost vs. time

The chart below shows how these 5 categories are compared relative to each other in “cost vs. time” plain.

Cost vs. time: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. time: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

College degree programs are the most expensive with longer timelines typically 2–4 years.

Bootcamps are the next expensive category, typically taking between 12 weeks to 2 years.

Books typically cost somewhere between $10-$50, and take a day to a week to read through.

Online courses vary from a few minute courses to 30 minutes, 60 minutes courses, some with multiple videos.

Blog articles are typically 1–10 minute read depending on the length and depth of the topic.


Cost vs. structured information

Cost vs. structured information: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. structured information: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

Especially from UX starter’s perspective, whether the information is well structured or not is critical when choosing a resource. At a high-level, the more you pay, the more structured information that you will get overall.

Obviously, with college degree programs, which have 2–4 year time frame with relatively expensive tuition, you will get the most structured information.

Bootcamps also gives you a fairly well structured information, focusing on practical skills including technical aspects, rather than theory and academic research.

Books are generally well structured within itself, but because each book focuses on its own specific topic, you need to pick many books and structure those by yourself to have a decent coverage of the basics.

Blogs are similar to books, except each blog article tends to be more polarized, and less structured in general.


Cost vs. comprehensiveness

Cost vs. comprehensiveness: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. comprehensiveness: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

As for comprehensiveness, it is similar to structured information.

College degree programs with 2–4 year timeline offer the most comprehensive information.

Bootcamps in general have fairly comprehensive coverage overall, focusing on the practical aspect. But because of this practical focus, some bootcamps stresses the importance of becoming a “full-stack UX designer” a bit too much. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t aim for this especially as a UX starter. And in reality, most UX designers are not expected to work as a “full-stack designer”.

Most of online courses lack comprehensiveness, and only scratches the surface primarily with high-level theory lectures. Those are good general overview knowledge primarily for just to get a sense of the topic.

Books could be comprehensive in terms of its focused area, but each book is focused on a specific area, and it’s challenging to get a comprehensive coverage of UX basics just through books only.

Blogs are the least comprehensive resources. By nature, that’s not what blogs are meant for anyway. Blogs are for very specific opinions on very specific topics based on the author’s perspective, some of which are very informative, insightful and useful.


Cost vs. practicality

Cost vs. practicality: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. practicality: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

When you take a look at practicality, bootcamps are the most practical resources among these 5 categories in general.

Bootcamps are intended to focus on practical skills so that their graduates can get jobs. For this reason, they also put emphasis on technical skills too.

On the other hand, college degree programs don’t necessarily focus on practicality. It focuses more on students’ pursuit of their particular interests deeply and academically. For that reason, some of their curriculums may not necessarily be the most up-to-date.

Some blogs may have practical stories based on the author’s real world experiences, which could be very informative.

Books vary depending on the author’s approach, intent and the background. But in general, it tends to be more on the theoretical side, partially due to its format limitations.

Many existing online courses tends to get theoretical with lecture style, which focuses more on high-level theories. Some of the reasons for this is because in order to get concrete and practical, you need to show case studies in-depth, which are typically not possible due to copyright and confidentiality issues.


Cost vs. pace flexibility

Cost vs. pace flexibility: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. pace flexibility: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

When it comes to whether you can learn at your own pace or not, college degree programs and bootcamps put you into their calendar structure such as semesters. So at a high-level, you need to work in a forced-pace environment, even though there may be some flexibility in terms of duration to complete a course, whether in 2 semesters or 3 semester, 1.5 year or 2 year, for example.

On the contrary, online courses typically allows you to proceed at your own pace, which gives you more flexibility and control over your time management.

As for books and blogs, it’s completely up to you as to how fast or slow you read through.


Cost vs. collaboration opportunity

Cost vs. collaboration opportunity: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position
Cost vs. collaboration opportunity: how college programs, bootcamps, online courses, blogs and books position

Collaboration is an important part of a UX designer’s work. In most projects, you will be working as part of a team, which means you do need to collaborate with other team members.

College degree programs and bootcamps both offer good collaboration opportunities typically in form of team projects. These provide many chances for you to be immersed in a group environment working with your peer students on a project. The current limitation is that these team projects typically don’t have members from different disciplines such as engineering or project management.

However, some very few bootcamps may give you an opportunity to work with engineers.

Online courses, books and blogs don’t offer collaboration opportunities primarily due to their format limitations. Online courses and blogs could potentially allow participants and readers to exchange comments via message boards.


UX related colleges in the U.S., cost vs. time

Numbers and links are all subject to change, whenever listed institutions make any changes on their end.
Numbers and links are all subject to change, whenever listed institutions make any changes on their end.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it covers some of the most well known programs in the U.S. relevant to the field of UX. As you can see, college degree programs are very expensive, ranging from $48K to over $200K. As for the duration of programs, in general, undergraduate programs are typically 4 year long, while graduate programs are typically 2 year long with some exceptions.

UX related college programs ranges from HCI (Human Computer Interaction), interaction design to digital media. At the moment, college degree programs are relatively more respected compared to UX bootcamp certificates, as it is a huge commitment for anyone to go through 2–4 year program with substantial investment.

If you can afford that kind of money and time, and would like to take a long shot devoting yourself deep into learning, pursuing a college degree program could be the right fit for you.

As for graduate programs, many people apply after having some real world work experiences.

Some people get accepted by these graduate programs even though coming from different backgrounds.


UX bootcamps in North America, cost vs. time

Numbers and links are all subject to change, whenever listed institutions make any changes on their end.
Numbers and links are all subject to change, whenever listed institutions make any changes on their end.

Compared to college degree programs, bootcamps are relatively less expensive and shorter. The cost ranges from $400 to $58,000, and durations range from 4 week to 2 year.

Bootcamps have become popular in the past several years. Even though it’s relatively less expensive compared to colleges, it’s still quite an investment, so you need to be careful before making a full commitment.

Bootcamps typically market themselves with very strong messages, some of which could be misleading. Some of their most typical marketing message is that “once you complete their course, you are fully ready to take a full-time UX designer position and start earning big money.”

But you need to be careful about this so that you don’t get the wrong expectation. You should not expect just riding on their program without making any serious effort on your end will automatically get you what they promise in their marketing message.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how much serious effort that you put in during the course, and continue your effort even after the course.

Because just completing a bootcamp program will not turn you into an experienced UX designer all of the sudden. Your learning continues.


UX related books

Illustration of books

Free UX online resources

A laptop showing a web page

UX online forums

Illustration of text bubbles representing online forums

UX designer’s journey — college path

Illustration showing a person taking a college path to become a UX designer

If you can afford money and time, and want to take a log shot immersing yourself deep into learning, college path could be a good fit for you. It will give you a great opportunity and resources for you to leverage. You will have a chance to work on team projects with peer students, which is a great way to get used to collaboration setup. Internship opportunities are another great advantages that you could get from college degree programs. Internship allows you to get a real world experience while you are still a student. It could also open up a potential to get a full-time position upon graduation, if the company really likes you and if you like the company.

Some of the possible down sides are that the program could be a bit too academic, could lack practicality.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most programs put UX in a vacuum, and don’t cover how UX is positioned in a larger product team including engineers and project managers.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to how much effort that you can put in. The more you put in, the more you will get out of it.

Also, keep in mind that just taking a college degree program and completing will not turn you into an experienced UX designer all of the sudden. And this is not the end of your journey learning about UX. It is just the beginning. Your journey continues.

College path example journey maps (based on true stories)

Example 1:

College path journey map example 1
College path journey map example 1

Example 2:

College path journey map example 2
College path journey map example 2

Example 3:

College path journey map example 3
College path journey map example 3

UX designer’s journey — bootcamp path

Illustration of a person taking UX bootcamp path to become a UX designer

If your budget and timeline are more limited, but still can afford $10,000+, bootcamps could potentially be a good fit for you. If you already have a graphic design background for example, that would make something like a bootcamp a good fit for you, because in that case you already have a design foundation to build on top of.

Similar to college programs, bootcamps offer team project opportunity, where you can work with your peer students on a project.

Some of the possible down sides are that many bootcamps tend to have a hyped marketing message around “how you can immediately earn a big money right after graduating their courses” which is not necessarily true. This caused some mixed opinions about bootcamp graduates among company’s hiring managers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most programs put UX in a vacuum, and don’t cover how UX is positioned in a larger product team including engineers and project managers. But there are some bootcamps that allows you to collaborate with engineers.

There are quite a few discussion around whether bootcamps are worth the money. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to how much effort that you can put in. The more you put in, the more you will get out of it.


UX designer’s journey — self-taught path

Illustration of a person taking self-taught path to become a UX designer

Now there are certain people who can go with self-taught, independent path.

If you have a strong passion, will and persistency, this is a good way for you to structure your path in any way that you want even if you have a limited budget. But it definitely requires a lot of energy, effort, and trials and errors.


UX designer’s journey is a continuous learning

Illustration showing a journey of a UX designer

Whatever path you take, keep in mind that UX designer’s journey is not like choosing one resource and it’s all set. If you choose to take a college degree program, that’s great, but completing college program is not the end. Your journey continues. The same thing with bootcamp, or any other path.

Whatever you choose to do, put in as much effort that you can. By doing so, your thought process kicks in. Once it kicks in, it’s like starting an engine of your car, and it will take you further and further to the next level.

UX designer’s journey is a continuous learning. That’s what’s exciting about being a UX designer. The field of UX is still new, and it’s constantly evolving and expanding. Great UX designers enjoy this continuous learning.

If you are a type of person who can absolutely enjoy the learning process, and have all the traits shown below, becoming a UX designer is the right fit for you, and will give you an amazing experience.

Great UX designer’s traits shown in a diagram with inter-connections
Great UX designer’s traits

The above diagram shows 12 traits that great UX designers typically have.

In order to become a successful UX designer, it’s important that you possess these traits. As you can see in the diagram, many of these traits are interconnected with each other. Take a look at each trait, and see how many traits you think you have!

Are you ready to take your next step?

Good luck with your journey, and thank you for reading!

Illustration showing a journey of a UX designer is continuous learning

UX Resource Map is created by Ryu Sakai, who is passionate about helping to-be-UX designers find their ways to succeed.

This article was originally published on Medium in UX Collective on June 30, 2019.

To get the updated version, download a PDF here.


#15 Seeing the World as 1000 People: How I Learned Content Strategy Informed Design Systems for the TED Conference

Twenty years ago, I worked on a project called Global Village. It was a data visualization animation presented by Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn at TED10 Conference in year 2000, and was greeted by a standing ovation.

Last year, I was saddened to find out that Krzysztof passed away. He was one of my favorite teachers at RISD. I exchanged a message with Jack Lenk, Krzysztof’s son, and he mentioned …

… one of the pieces I found (from my father’s work archive) was that Global Village animation — still looks great after all these years!

Because Global Village was one of the most important early projects that I had the honor to work with Krzysztof for, I dug into my archives and watched it again. Jack was right: Even after 20 years, the animation looked fresh and crisp, with almost a timeless quality. This sparked my curiosity as to why. I wanted to spend some time thinking through this project once again.

There are still many key elements in Global Village animation design that are relevant to today’s UX and information design practitioners. I also realized that I learned so much from this project, which has been impacting my work for all these years since. I would like to share these insights.

Global Village animation, created for TED conference in year 2000

The power of a core concept

Google search result: what if the world is a village of 1000

When you google “what if the world is a village of 1000,” you get 273 million results. This is the core concept that we used for the Global Village animation 20 years ago, borrowed from the World Village Project by worldvillage.org, which unfortunately no longer seems to exist.

The concept of compressing the 7.7 billion world population down to 1000 to get a clear picture of the earth’s overview was a brilliant idea. No question.

The core concept of Global Village, described in the text

There’s no surprise that so many people are attracted to this concept and visualized it in so many different ways. This is a great example of how a core concept at a content level plays a significant role in creating a quality design to begin with.

But when you take a closer look at various visualizations, you start to realize that design is so subjective with so many possible directions to go, depending on designers’ intentions, decisions, and interpretations.

Design is subjective

A concept of 1000 or 100, visualized in various different ways: from top-left: 1- What if Only 100 People Existed on EarthRealLifeLore, 2017, 7.8 M views | 2- If the world were 100 PeopleGOOD, 2016, 2.9 M views | 3- If the world were a village of 100BBtheSeries, 2008, 277K views | 4- If the World Was Only 100 PeopleKnovva Academy, 2018, 47K views | 5- If The World Were Village of 100 PeopleETRAFFIC, 2014, 32K views | 6- Global Village, Dynamic Diagrams, 2000

Above are screenshots of the five most-viewed videos on the topic when you Google, compared to the Global Village screenshot on the bottom right, explaining the concept of shrinking the entire world population down to a village of 1000 or 100 at the beginning.

As you can see, each has its own design and visual style, remarkably different from each other. The number of visual design styles can be endless. Each designer has their own style, and each viewer has their own preference.

Any visual design style is fine as long as it works. But it has to work across its entirety of a piece, not just in one particular scene or section. And ideally, the design system should help its audience understand the content better.


Subtractive rather than additive

How “place of origin” is visualized differently by different designers

The above shows another set of screenshots from the same videos visualizing a number of people based on a place of origin. Because it’s about geographic population, having a world map makes logical sense. However, below are questions that a designer should ask before jumping into a conclusion …

  • Does adding a world map enhance an understanding of the data?
  • Would a world map introduce another visual element that could potentially clutter the screen?
  • How does it affect an overall consistency and a viewer’s cognitive load when you have some statistics displayed on a map while others don’t?
  • What story do you want the map to tell, population of each region, or population density of each region relative to its land, etc.?
How “religion by population” is visualized differently by different designers

Above are more screenshots showing the statistics on religion. While illustrations and symbols are nice to have from a purely visual design perspective, it’s not immediately clear which illustrations or symbols represent which religion. A voice-over helps, but if you miss the audio, it’s hard to understand.


Consistency and repetition enhance learnability

Visual consistency build-up

The above diagram shows how each video starts to build up its design system as it progresses. As you can see, some are more consistent than others. As a designer, questions you should be asking are:

  • How important is consistency?
  • Or is breaking the consistency and keep surprising the viewer the main intention?
  • If consistency is important, why?
  • Which parts specifically should be consistent?
  • What is the balance between strictly consistent vs. space for freedom?

Content strategy

My original notes during the process of the project

In order to answer some of these questions above, you need to understand the content. You need to be crystal clear about the core message you are going to deliver to its viewers. To get there, you need to work on content analysis and content strategy.

So what is content analysis?

Content analysis is basically to carefully go over all the available content and examine what it means. Below are some questions to go through during content analysis. Keep in mind that these questions are created with Global Village in mind. Depending on a project/product, of course, questions would vary.

  • What are the implications?
  • What are the interesting facts?
  • What are the shocking facts?
  • What emotion do you get when you see it?
  • Does showing certain statistics in a particular order enhance understanding?
  • Are some statistics related to each other?
  • Are there any contrasting statistics that could be paired?

Once you answer all these questions, you will start to get a crisp picture of how the content should be laid out in which sequence to tell a compelling story. This is content strategy.

Here is the content strategy for Global Village project that I was part of.

  • In order to present so much information that spans across so many topics, we needed to minimize a viewer’s cognitive load so that they can fully focus on the content itself (various statistical breakdowns of earth’s population).
  • This means minimum visual elements and clutters, repetitive and consistent layout and animation sequence per scene.
  • Audio should only play a secondary and supportive role to assist the overall understanding of the viewer, rather than setting a forced-pace with a piece of background music, or taking a dominant role with a voice-over.
  • Content should be laid in a sequence that flows well from one topic to another.
  • Let the data itself tell a story by allowing a viewer to purely focus on the numbers so that it sinks in to reveal its meaning and impact on its own.
  • Keep reinforcing the very concept of “what if a world is a village of 1000” by always showing an empty 1000 unit screen before starting every single topic.

As a designer, it’s important to have a good understanding of the content that your product is dealing with in order to make its user experience as good and appropriate as possible. This should be done with UX researchers, UX writers, technical writers, product managers (PMs), and engineers.

Oftentime, UX designers may not have much control over the content that they receive. But UX designers still have enormous power in influencing the overall user experience of a product they design because all the content and information will be presented through a design system that they as UX designers create and specify.

How do you tell a story? How do you sequence and structure a story to make it effective and easy to understand? What is the most effective design system to realize that? These are all up to UX designers.


Content strategy to a design system

Left: My original sketches on an overall sequence, Right: Design studies on various shapes and color combinations

A designer has the power and responsibility to create a system for the product they design. A design system should be created in a way so that it fits the content and the context of the product so that the experience of the product is easy to understand and delightful to use for its target users.

In order to do so, a designer needs to have a deep understanding of the content. Only through this deep understanding, a UX designer is able to create a design direction so that all the efforts are made towards that set direction, which will result in a design system that is deeply integrated with the content strategy. A well-thought-out design system can educate a user through a use of repetitive patterns as a system so that a user can naturally learn how things work just by using it, so that she can just focus on the content or a task itself. When that is achieved, a design becomes transparent.


Subtract without losing quality

Today, data visualization is one of the hottest areas in design, with so many data being constantly captured automatically. This means UX and information designers are more and more responsible for how to visualize those data in an easy to understand manner without causing information overload. Simplicity is the key. How to subtract as many visual elements as possible without losing the quality and the meaning becomes critical.

Below shows an overall progression of three animation designs from start to finish, represented in a group of screenshots. The first one is by Dynamic Diagrams, the second by RealLifeLore, the third by GOOD.

While criticizing others are not my intention, when you take a look at all three different designs together, it’s pretty obvious and safe to say that Dynamic Diagram has the most consistent and clear design system put in place, that carries through consistently from start to finish.

Global Village, Dynamic Diagrams, 2000
What if Only 100 People Existed on Earth, RealLifeLore, 2017
If the world were 100 People, GOOD, 2016

After all, it’s user-centered design

It’s all about how to make things as easy and clear as possible for the user. It’s not about pleasing yourself by using a bunch of cool visual effects.

Today’s UX designers need to design user experiences of complex products that have many flows branching out depending on how a user makes choices, how a user enters a particular screen from which entry point, and so on. Obviously digital interactive products are much more complex compared to a data-viz animation shown here.

But regardless of the differences in complexity and media types, the fundamental approach remains the same. Just like compressing the 7.7 billion world population down to 1000 makes us understand more clearly, looking at how a content strategy and a design system impact a data-viz animation design gives us a clearer picture of its importance and impact.

This approach—having a content strategy, a deep understanding and analysis of content, and implementing that strategy into a design system—is what I learned from Global Village animation, which still serves as a foundation of my work today as a UX designer.


A bit of a background…

I worked as a lead designer for Global Village animation together with Stephen So, under directions of Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn at Dynamic Diagrams in the year 2000. At the time, Krzysztof was a Professor at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), as well as a Creative Director at Dynamic Diagrams. I was a graduate student at RISD. Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn presented Global Village animation at TED10 Conference that same year at Monterey, California. Dynamic Diagrams closed for business in 2012.

Originally, TED (technology, entertainment, and design) was cofounded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984. When it was rebooted in 1990, it became a popular annual, invitation-only event in Monterey, California. In 2001, Chris Anderson’s nonprofit Sapling Foundation acquired TED, and Anderson became its Curator.

All the statistics used in Global Village animation was based on what was available in the year 2000, representing the world of late 90s.

This article was initially published on Medium from Nightingale, a data visualization journal on March 10, 2020.

#14 Does user research come with limitations?

User research is critical part of user-centered design practice. UX designers should be designing products and services for users, not for themselves. There’s no question about it.

Then, what do I mean by limitations of user research?

Just because you did user research does not guarantee you a success of your product. It’s definitely better than not doing any user research at all. But you really should not be doing user research just for the sake of it.

First of all, in order for a user research to happen, you need to come up with a research plan, you need to design a user research itself.

  • What do you want to test?
  • What are key questions that you would like to probe with participants?
  • What is the stimuli that you would like to use?
  • Is it a prototype?
  • Or is it a bunch of static screenshots, or wireframes?
  • Is it a card sorting exercise?
  • Or is it just bunch of questions?
  • What would you like to observe/take note of while participants interact with your designs?
  • When do you want to conduct the research?
  • Do you want to conduct 1 on 1 interviews, or focus groups?
  • How long per session?
  • What would be the sample size (participants, sessions)?
  • Who do you want to test with?
  • What would be the geographical spread? (region, country…)
  • How do you recruit participants?

The list goes on.

The point here is that user research itself has to be designed by UX researchers and UX designers in the first place. You should also get a consensus from a Product Manager.

This means that the quality of user research is dictated by how well the research is designed and executed. Which is pretty much dictated by UX researcher and UX designers’ abilities and experiences who are handling the work.

If you are testing a UX design concept, the outcome of user research is limited by the quality / clarity of the design itself too.

If the UX design concept that is going to be used for the research is poorly done, you won’t get a quality result. This does not mean that the design always has to be high fidelity. But it needs to be clear enough to communicate the idea/concept/flow that you would like to test, even if it’s a low-fidelity wireframe prototype.

If the research is poorly designed, you won’t get a quality result. If the research is poorly executed, you won’t get a quality result.

Because of an emphasis on process-oriented approach in UX practice, people seem to misunderstand that just following the right process will get them an excellent outcome automatically.

But it doesn’t.

User-centered design practice is not a pure science.  But it’s not a pure art either. It’s a combination of art and science with so many variables that affect the result.

Don’t get me wrong.

User research is important. Process is important. Process-oriented approach is good. But you shouldn’t get caught up too much in the process itself rigidly either. Process is just a framework. It’s just a starting point.

Because every single project is different, things may need to be tweaked and adjusted to specific needs and conditions of each project. There are so many variables that can be adjusted after all. What goes in there is the actual substance, which requires a quality of its own.

You need experience to become good at designing a right user research at a right time.

Only by going through trials and errors, you’ll learn lessons and get better.

Which is why, getting out there and start accumulating your experience is better than trying to learn everything on paper before trying things out.

After all, user research is something that you can only learn by doing.

Check out YouTube version too!


#13 Can a $6 stylus + trackpad replace an expensive stylus?

Wacom stylus is great for hand drawing sketches if you can afford it.

iPad with Apple Pencil is nice too.

But Wacom top-of-the-line products with a large display could cost a few thousand dollars. And Apple Pencil plus iPad Pro are almost $1000.

If you already have MacBook Pro, it has a fairly large trackpad.

And surprisingly, any affordable capacitive stylus works on a trackpad. Some of capacitive styluses are under 10 dollars, which is very affordable compared to Wacom or Apple Pencil.

Now a capacitive stylus on a trackpad is definitely not perfect. In fact you need to get used to three things:

1) pressure, 2) angle, and 3) registration.

You have to get used to applying light but enough pressure on a trackpad to make the stylus register its relative position on screen with relatively up-right angle.

This is quite different compared to when using your own finger. With your own finger, you hardly apply any pressure to the trackpad. It just works without you noticing it as soon as you put your finger on the surface of a trackpad.

But with a capacitive stylus, you need to consistently apply a light pressure to move around a cursor on screen. Then, once you want to draw a line, you apply more pressure to make the trackpad “click”.

For example, when you draw a circle with a stylus, as long as you are drawing a continuous line, everything is fine, the line keeps get drawn as you move the stylus with a firm pressure.

Now once you finish a stroke, and want to draw the second stroke, that’s when you need to register your stylus’s starting position.

When using a trackpad, you are actually doing this by moving around your index finger to find out where your cursor is on a screen. But while we are used to this behavior with a mouse or a trackpad, doing the same thing by applying a light pressure to a stylus feels quite different.

So basically with a capacitive stylus on a trackpad, you end up drawing on a trackpad continuously, sometimes drawing with light pressure, other times drawing with firm pressure. The only thing is that when you are drawing with light pressure, you are actually not drawing, but just moving around the cursor.

This is where more expensive solutions like Wacom and Apple Pencil on iPad provide better experience, so that you don’t need to worry about registering a new position of a stylus on a screen.

With Wacom stylus, it continuously registers the pen position even when a pen is off screen.

With Apple Pencil + iPad, you don’t have this problem because it’s a touch screen.

So if a precise control is super important for you and you can afford it, it’s definitely better to get Wacom or Apple Pencil.

But for more casual users, a capacitive stylus on a trackpad is a good affordable solution once you get used to it.

Check out YouTube version too!


#12 Can you simulate an automatic experience in 10 min?

So UX prototype is all about simulating, or faking an experience so that it feels like a real product.

These days, we expect products and services to be smarter. We expect things to happen automatically. We expect just the right amount of information presented to us at the right moment when we need it.

For example, a notification comes up on screen that tells you that you’ve been still for too long that you should stand up and stretch your body.

Or you might ask your voice assistant, “What’s on my calendar today?” Which displays your today’s schedule on screen. Or you come back home, entering a living room, which activates a TV screen, displaying a “welcome home” message.

In real products, you need various technology to make these scenarios happen, such as motion sensors, voice recognition software, proximity sensor, face recognition software, and so on.

But in UX prototypes, none of these are needed to simulate these experiences. That’s the beauty of UX prototypes.

So how do you do?

Just use a keyboard as an interaction trigger in your prototype software, and use a keyboard or a remote controller to trigger that from outside of the device that you are running a prototype on.

Let’s take an example of popping up a notification. Here’s a simple prototype created in Adobe XD running on a computer, simulating a phone experience.

I can press “A” key on a keyboard which triggers a prototype on my MacBook to show a notification. In this case, I’m using HDE Bluetooth mini keyboard to send a key command to a prototype running on a Macbook.

In a prototype, I have two artboards, one with a notification set to transparent, the other with a notification visible. An interaction trigger from screen 1 to 2 is set to a keyboard with an assigned key “A”.

This is all I have.

To run a prototype on mobile, I can create it in Axure.

Here, the same prototype is running on Axure Cloud mobile app on my iPhone. Now I have a mini keyboard connected to my iPhone via bluetooth. Again, I can press “A” key on my mini keyboard to trigger a notification on my Axure prototype running on my iPhone.

This set up is pretty flexible and powerful in simulating various automatic user experiences. You can apply to any screen-based devices such as PlayStation 4, Smart TV, tablets, smartphones, PC.

It would work best if you serve as a prototype controller, and have another person as a user who experiences your prototype. Because you have full control over when to trigger the notification, you can time it based on various different factors, such as…

  • When a user picks up a phone
  • When a user comes close and glances over a phone
  • When a user comes in front of a screen
  • When a user is sitting on a chair, and just looked down on a phone

Possibilities are endless.

Important thing is, all of these should be decided based on what kind of user experience that you would like to achieve.

Engineers make functional prototypes. Due to the nature of their work, engineers focus on real functionality.

On the other hand, we as UX designers are free from this limitation, when creating user experience prototypes.

UX designers should be as creative and imaginative as possible when creating a user experience. UX prototype should provide a user experience as close to real as possible.

In achieving that real feeling, there’s no constrains. Things can be “staged” by multiple prototype operators. Things can be faked as if it’s working for real. The only constrains there are your imagination and creativity.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that UX designers should ignore engineering constrains. At the end of the day, a product needs to be built by engineers in order to launch. And there will be many real world constrains to overcome for sure.

But it’s important for a UX designer to simulate what the ideal experience could be, where team members and user test participants can actually feel.

Then, you’ll get a lot of feedback, such as this feels great, but in reality it takes more time for a server to respond to this type of request in real-time, for example.

If the initial UX prototype generates enough delight and buy-ins from stakeholders, it might motivate engineers to overcome obstacles to make it happen.

Check out YouTube version too!


#11 Let go of your perfectionism

We always aspire for a perfectionism.

Especially for things that we care a lot, we want it to be perfect. Be it your first date, your wedding, initial setup for your brand-new mobile phone, your first job interview…the list goes on.

Unfortunately, perfectionism tends to have more negative effects than positive ones. It sets you back. It gives you an excuse not to take the next step. Like “Oh, it’s still not perfect, I’m still working on it, so I cannot move on….”

But the more time you spend, the harder it becomes to complete because now the expectation is higher. It traps you into a vicious cycle.

The key to avoiding this is to let go of your perfectionism.

Get used to being imperfect. Embrace being imperfect. When you think about learning how to ski, it’s pretty clear that you have to try by yourself, right? You end up falling down a lot, but that’s just part of the learning process.

We seem to forget this when it comes to intellectual activities such as learning UX.

Whether you take college programs or bootcamp or on your own, the important thing is you actually work on projects by yourself. The more you try by yourself, the better you will become.

You should start trying before you feel you are fully ready. In fact, you will probably learn a lot more, a lot faster this way.

In order to do so, you need to let go of your perfectionism, and feel comfortable enough being imperfect and try.

It’s interestingly counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

In today’s UX practice, we put rough prototypes in front of users to quickly find out if it works for the users or not. It’s important to do this earlier than later so that you can “fail fast”.

As a result, you learn problems quicker, iterate quicker, which leads to a better design quicker before investing too much time.

When you are learning to become a UX designer, it’s the same thing. In this case, you are “a UX designer prototype” yourself! To improve yourself quicker, it’s better to actually work with PM, engineers, other UX designers, UX researchers on a UX project, earlier than later.

This is the most valuable way to learn what works and what doesn’t. You may get critical feedback, sometimes even harsh ones.But that’s OK. Those are all part of the learning process. Just like falling down painfully while practicing how to ski…

Try for yourself early and fail fast!

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#10 Macbook keyboard disappointment

So I currently use MacBook Pro 15 inch as my primary computer every day. I’ve been using Mac for many years. The current MacBook Pro is a little over a year old.

And I have to say that I’m disappointed with its keyboard, even though it works perfectly fine functionality wise.

Why?

Because the keyboard is getting very messy.

My newer 15″ MacBook Pro keyboard with damaged keys

As you can see in the picture, the keys, “A”, “S”,“D”, “C”, “M”, and “O” and command key all have their white inks “overflown” to the surface of the keys and making the keys look pretty bad, as if a white ink was spilled over.

And the thing is, I already brought my MacBook to an Apple Store to replace the keyboard a few months ago. After replacing the keyboard, it didn’t take that long until exactly the same issue happened again.

And now, because it has passed one year since the purchase, it’s no longer under warranty, so I have to pay if I were to replace the keyboard again!

As a comparison, this is a keyboard of my older 17 inch MacBook from 2009. The irony is that the keyboard looks perfectly fine compared to my newer Macbook.

My older 17″ MacBook keyboard still looks perfectly fine after all these years.

So why does the new MacBook have this problem, while an older MacBook does not?

Apple is a great company, and make beautiful products. But because of that, when you come across something like this, it’s a lot of disappointment. I know that it doesn’t affect my productivity, and functionality-wise it works just fine.

But user experience is not just about functionality.

Every time I see the messy keyboard, it makes me feel frustrated. This is very much part of my user experience too.

It’s even ironic to see such a basic problem right below a fancy, shiny LED strip that dynamically shows contextual buttons and sliders.

And it’s sad to see a company and a brand that was once known to be a master of user experience has such a basic production issue.

As one of long time Apple users, I really hope that Apple take this kind of problem seriously.

Check out YouTube version too!


Also, check out the follow-up story on this!

#9 Delight from Office Depot LIFT & PRESS envelope

So what’s up with an envelope?

Such an outdated thing in a digital age of email and social media, right? I know, who uses an envelope these days?

Actually, you still use envelopes quite often even in today’s world even though many things have moved to a digital world. Sending checks, submitting application forms and so on.

With a traditional envelope, typically, you would have to lick the edge of a flip to “activate” the adhesive in order to seal it.

Licking an envelope has never been a pleasant experience for me. But I did it anyway, since that still seemed the easiest way compared to other ways, like rushing to a bathroom or a kitchen sink and so on.

Here’s Office Depot LIFT & PRESS envelope. Interesting thing is that it has a second flip on the other side of the envelope.

According to their description, “We use the patented Reveal-N-Seal technology & envelope design. To seal, lift up the lower flap to expose the strong adhesive. Then press the top flap down to bond the envelope closed.”

Another point is that there’s “no removable paper strips to throw away”, which is nice too.

Now, this is nothing super-advanced technologically. Everything is old school. But I think it’s a brilliant idea.

It’s just a slight modification from an ancient product that we are so used to using for ages. And yet, this small modification changed the user experience of sealing an envelope simpler, and most importantly, much more pleasant than it used to be.

The point here is that user experience is not just about fancy digital user interfaces that looks super-cool.

In fact, any products, any services will trigger user experience of some sort, whether physical or digital, old or new.

Also, user experience does not have to be about cutting-edge innovative technology. Actually user experience itself is nothing to do with technology.

User experience designer’s job is to solve a user’s problem and make the user experience better, easier, simpler, more pleasant and delightful.

That’s what this envelope is exactly doing. This envelope illustrates that even a mundane, ancient product could have a room to improve the user experience without any cutting-edge technology.

A practical, creative idea can make a huge impact on our everyday lives, potentially with just a slight modification of an existing thing.

And I think that’s great.

That’s one of great values that UX designers can bring to the table.

Check out YouTube version too!


#8 Amazon customer support chat: good and bad

I order something on Amazon, but the item did not arrive even though the tracking said it was “delivered”. So I looked for their customer support, and initiated their chat session.

These days, customer support chat is becoming more and more popular. Sometimes, there’s a live person responding. Other times it’s a chatbot.

From a business perspective, a chatbot could save a ton of money so that they can minimize the number of live person to respond to customer inquiries.

From a customer’s perspective, chatbot could be frustrating when you type in your questions and the chatbot doesn’t understand. Because chatbot is typically fairly limited in terms of understanding a human’s free-form questions, this happens quite often.

Amazon solved this problem by presenting a few canned answers for a customer to choose from. A customer is ONLY allowed to choose his reply from given options, instead of free-form typing.

From Amazon’s perspective, this substantially limits the error cases, almost down to none, as the customer’s reply is always predictable. This is pretty much the same as a typical automated voice system when you call a customer support phone line. But it flows much better because you can always see all the options and the chat history.

In my case, canned options worked perfectly by me choosing the following options:

“Got it!” “Yes, that’s it” “Didn’t get it” “Package never arrived”.

After choosing these 4 replies, the chatbot finally gave me a new information, saying that “OK, looks like the delivery status may have been updated too soon. The good news is it should arrive soon. Give us until the end of day Fri, Dec 06. Really appreciate your patience with this. Is there anything else I can help with?”

Then another group of reply options were presented. I don’t remember all the options, but I chose “What if I don’t get it?”

Then the chatbot replied: “If for some reason it doesn’t get there by then, definitely come back & we’ll request your money back or send another one.”

So I replied with: “OK, will do”

Chatbot: Is there anything else I can help you with?

Me: “No, that’s all”

Chatbot: “OK. We’ll post any updates and next steps in Your Orders. Thanks for choosing Amazon. I’m here to help whenever you have an issue.”

The good news is, that the item did arrive on the date the chatbot suggested. So it all worked out well.

Now a question still remained. The tracking never got updated, neither on Amazon website, nor USPS tracking site. Both remained as “delivered” which was a wrong status. I can only assume that when the chatbot responded that “the delivery status may have been updated too soon”, Amazon server actually communicated with USPS server and retrieved the real information. Or, it simply tried to buy some time without any data.

If Amazon was able to get a real information from USPS that reflects the reality, then that same information should have updated the tracking status of Amazon order page and USPS tracking site.

But because it didn’t, that made me wonder if the chatbot reply was really trustworthy or not.

These days,  more than ever, various services are integrated with each other. In this case, my user experience of tracking the status of my order at Amazon consisted of me interacting with Amazon chatbot and USPS tracking website.

Even though the item actually arrived on time as the chatbot mentioned, USPS tracking and Amazon order tracking did not reflect that, which resulted in my mixed feeling. I wasn’t sure if the information that the chatbot told me was really true, until I finally received the item.

In an ideal world, I should have received a tracking update from Amazon, based on an accurate tracking update communicated from USPS to Amazon, so that I didn’t even have to contact Amazon in the first place.

These are the things that UX designer should keep an eye on, when designing a user experience. As you start looking into an end-to-end user experience, you may find that it’s actually a lot broader than what you initially thought.

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