The intention of my presentation was to explore the topic through the lens of a professional practitioner, and to identify questions that I thought were worthy of further investigation. So this presentation does not provide many answers. This is a slightly revised version of the script I wrote and which I did not deviate too far from in whatever extemporising I did on the night.
Tonight I want to investigate whether we are taking the best approach in how we think about preserving Digital Design for future audiences. Do we tend to focus on the pixel, not the paradigm?
To set the scene, I need to talk about the kinds of work that we do in Frontend.com and how we go about doing it. The first thing most people think of when they hear Digital Design still tends to be websites. But, in reality, the scope of what we design is considerably broader than that. We design Digital Systems. That is combinations of front-end and back-end software which can be accessed and used in many ways. Whether that is over the Internet, in dedicated PC applications or smartphone apps, or even embedded within specific bespoke hardware devices.
We could be designing these products for use by general consumers, like this application. Or else be tailoring them specifically for particular cohorts of users such as financial analysts, medical healthcare professionals, and so on. Predominantly, these are tools that help people to achieve their goals in their working life.
I realise that not everyone in the audience this evening works in the Irish design sector. So, firstly, here are some useful definitions. In Digital Design we work in teams. These teams become get large and complicated, but at a high-level, the three core roles are User Experience Designers, Interaction Designers, and User Interface Designers.
To make a real-world analogy; let us use this library. (Note that this presentation was being given in the National Library of Ireland.) Working from the specific to the general. You can consider items such as this marketing leaflet as an aspect of the library’s User Interface.
The ways that the library’s contents are organised and how the physical spaces are configured, such as how many people the reading room can accommodate for example. Those can all be thought of as equivalent to its Interaction Design.
Then, at the highest level, User Experience takes responsibility for the overall experience people have here in the National Library. It requires considering every possible touchpoint, potential interaction, or conversation that people can have. Everything from the quality of your seat in the Reading Room, to the standard of coffee you get in the restaurant, to the kind of advice you get from the receptionist.
Now while this is an imperfect analogy, it strives to makes the point that a lot of the design thinking we have to do in Digital Design is concerned with Designing Experiences rather than Creating Artefacts. Obviously, this presents challenges when we want to consider how to preserve the outcomes of such design activities in the future.
If we think about the nature of the kinds of work activities being carried out.
User Experience is primarily delivered as a service: in workshops, design sprints, meetings, and conversations. While these processes produce a lot of ephemera, (the cliche of the wall of Post-it notes being the most obvious) there may not be much that can be archived in a meaningful way.
Interaction Design is the majority of the work. This produces copious documentation. So archiving those documents can be useful as they are rich in information. Although realistically we may have to consider archiving as periodic snapshots. I will go into more detail on that point later.
User Interface delivers tangible digital artefacts and its outputs are the closest equivalent to final end-products. Currently, these artefacts are the easiest to archive, and therefore are the most likely to be retained in the long-term by design studios. But the key issue to explore tonight is that the tendency to focus on this aspect of the process fails to capture the totality of Digital Product Design.
Digital Design PracticesIn thinking about this topic it is important that we consider the behaviours and practices in use within Digital Design teams. How do we work today? How are the ways that we work evolving? How are the commercial realities that we operate within changing?
The most fundamental change that we have seen over twenty years in Frontend.com is that previously our projects were discrete units of work; with a tangible deliverable at their completion. The project scope was often such that we would be able to complete all tasks in-house, deliver something to our client, and later on showcase the work as something we had made ourselves.
It is not so simple anymore.
Digital Design now operates within an international context. For example, on a typical project today we could be working with Corporate Ownership in the USA, Product Management in Switzerland, and Software Development in Poland, with us providing the User Experience Design from Dublin.
The Digital Design deliverables which we create are typically an intermediate element within such large complex projects. Our outputs are taken by either the client’s own in-house development team or by their software partners who realise the final end-product from our specifications.
As a result of operating within these sorts of contexts, Digital Design processes have evolved in parallel with software development methodologies and practices. Clients have moved away from the so-called ‘Big Plan Up-Front’ approach of putting a huge effort into defined and numbered product releases, v1.0 and v2.0 and so on. Instead most now choose to work in a sequence of ongoing iterations.
Interestingly this means that our design output is never truly fixed and is always in a state of flux. When designers are operating within a cycle of daily releases, their everyday reality is like the old expression: ‘You can never step into the same stream twice.’
So operating in this context and thinking about digital archiving the first question becomes: where does one draw the line? At what point do you step off the wheel and take a snapshot to archive?
Digital Designer BehavioursThe next facet of this topic we need to explore is the mindset of today’s Digital Designers. Would they ever make significant use of any significant national Digital Design Archive, or would such a resource prove more valuable to an academic audience?
Based on my own observations, Digital Designers more inclined to look sideways rather than look back to precedent. That is, they seem more inclined to draw from international best practices, heuristics, and design patterns in their areas of expertise, rather than from a deeper history of design.
I suspect that this is the case because Digital Designer’s mental bandwidth is occupied with keeping afloat in the ever-present waves of technological innovation that just keep coming at them. The various disciplines of Digital Design are not yet settled. They are characterised by ongoing iterations and reinventions, both at the minute level of craft-based details and all the way up to fundamental paradigm shifts at the macro levels of activity.
Of course, we can hope and expect that these Designers do have the wherewithal to look to precedent for some overarching general principles of User Experience Design. But we are not talking about a long period of time here.
If you consider that the Nokia phones top left were the cutting edge of mobile UI when Frontend.com was founded in 1999. The first ever web page was only published eight years before that. Then seven years previously the core user interface patterns we all rely on today were being defined with the first Apple Macintosh. In that same year, Jet Set Willy was the level of user interface that introduced me to digital design on my 16k ZX Spectrum. Look much further back and at a certain point, you run out of reference materials once you get to punchcards in the 1960s..
So we can say that the realistic event-horizon of historical reference points for a Digital Design project does tend to be limited by whenever the underlying software or technology platform was created.
What Do We Preserve?Every studio I have worked in has a dusty drawer full of unreadable ZIP disks, JAZ disks, CD-ROMs, and so on. Eventually, these legacy storage media do all end up in a skip and ultimately landfill.
In our studio, we do have a server with a working digital repository of projects going back to when we were founded. However, it is quite likely we may no longer have the means to access, edit, or even view a certain amount of those archived files.
It turns out that this is not actually much of a business problem. As there are few, if any, client requests to go back into our digital archive and engage with our older design resources and files.
Examples of our work where we can no longer feasible or easily view our end-products include:
- Flex applications or Flash-based websites.
- Applications that need specific Operating System versions to run.
- Embedded Applications in depreciated hardware, particularly medical devices.
- iOS and Android apps that only run on earlier releases of either operating system.
- Applications that depend on depreciated cloud services to provide live data and content to present. When that data is no longer available or does not even exist, how can one represent those digital User Experiences in the future?
No Paper TrailThe paperless office is another factor we have to address if we are thinking about what design legacy may survive into the future. I am sure archivists would love to get their hands on lots of Digital Designer’s black leather notebooks crammed full of carefully hand-rendered UI concept sketches. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of less of those these days as well.
Today that process tends more towards collaboration. As, for example, in our studio the vital initial ‘thinking by drawing’ work all happens on the walls, the tables, and the desks. We have adapted nearly every flat surface in our studio for writing and drawing on.
While that facilitates an efficient process of Design, Redesign, Redraw, Erase, and Repeat. It ultimately means no physical paper trail and no permanent record.
What Should We Be Preserving?We need to ask ourselves what is it that best captures the true essence of a Digital Product?
- Does a dance step diagram capture the dynamic experience of the tango?
- Does an architectural drawing capture the experience of walking through a historic building?
- Does a UI specifications document capture the experience of using a complex digital product?
- Obviously, the answer to these questions is no. Each is a facet of the designed experience, but none of them provides the complete picture.
If we visualise the Digital Product at sitting the centre of the context diagram below. Working outwards, to the left, there is the context of the user-facing hardware and interaction elements that house the digital construct. Do you need to archive those to capture the holistic experience of using the Digital Product?
Then working backwards, to the right, there is the vast ecosystem of all the potential inputs into the digital construct: content, databases, networks, location data, images, sensor data etc. Without those, the Digital Product is only an empty framework. So, do you also need to archive that to capture the holistic experience?
Novel UX InteractionsNow to add one further complication. We need to address the kinds of novel Digital Designs that may prove even more challenging to archive in future. As our smart devices are now location-aware, we observe more products which are deeply context-dependent. Think of the furniture app that shows you an augmented reality 3D view of how that armchair would look in your living room. The experience of these products is completely dependent on and tied to, the unique physical space that the app is being used within. You simply cannot replicate that experience in any another physical space. From an archival perspective, I would see these digital products as being akin to site-specific, location-based artworks.
So while there has been a tendency to consider Digital Design in association with printed materials. There are interesting conversations to be had about exploring ways to preserve Digital Design which may have more in common with how physical objects are preserved in a museum or artworks in a gallery.
Possible SolutionsWhat we find interesting would be to consider approaches to how one would go about archiving Digital Design outputs which are:
- Continuously Iterated
- Use Live Data
The Pixel or the Paradigm?At Frontend.com we find it most helpful to think of design as a narrative. It is more important to somehow capture as complete a representation of that narrative. For, if we only capture the pixels then we risk losing sight of the larger picture.
So, to that end, we have experimented with using narrative videos to capture the overall experience of our Digital Products by telling the story of those products. These videos include the products being used, along with conversations with their users discussing how the product's functionality and utility benefited them. Here is a short excerpt from one such video about the MyMilkman system we developed for Glanbia.
Perhaps narratives like this can point towards one of the necessary solutions to preserving the multi-faceted experience of using Digital Design products. I am looking forward to discussing this further with you all after we hear from our next two speakers.
|Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.|
‘Save As: Creating and Preserving Irish Digital Design’ was presented as part of Heritage Week and the European Year of Cultural Heritage. Other speakers included design historian Sorcha O’Brien and Joanna Finegan of the National Library’s Digital Collections Department. The 100 Archive is a community-centred initiative to capture and record the diverse history and practices of Irish graphic design.