Objectify Me, Please

By Vasken Sayre

As any customer support person will tell you, the world is not as high tech as we designers are inclined to believe. While we are absorbed by the possibility of a nuanced gestural UI in the latest touchscreen device, our users are struggling to configure five-year old hardware to run the most basic of programs, and without falling victim to a virus. The journey to our applications can be perilous and exhausting. So how can we communicate our most abstract designs to an audience near its limit? One approach is to remove abstraction through more universally understood representations.

Consider how you would explain the concept of cubic volume to a three-year old child. What name label would instantly explain this concept? What manner of tooltip could adequately describe it? Or if your child is not already reading, then what visual icon would spare you a thousand words? Chances are that each of these rote design conventions would fail to convey the concept of cubic volume.

Now imagine that in the prior scenario you had stacked 27 wood cubes, in a 3 wide x 3 long x 3 high configuration. Not only would the composition of cubic volume be more holistically understood, but the child could also see the effects of moving blocks to different positions, removing them from the whole either singularly or in fistfuls, or even stacking new volumes based upon the original model. The abstract concept is now easily understood by objectifying it with real world objects that most any three-year old knows how to manipulate.

Let’s take a closer look at the properties of a real world object that best communicate an abstract concept to the broadest user base. We can test these against one of the most successful objectifications in the software world – the desktop folder – which has managed to communicate ‘grouping within a hierarchical data structure’.


The concept is embodied by an object that’s widely used in the real world for similar purposes. For decades before desktop computing, people grouped printed data within manila folders, which in turn resided within hierarchical stacks, drawers, boxes, and the like.


It has visual solidity and may be anchored within the world by a light source and drop shadow. Desktop folders look like they’re resting on the desktop plane or are suspended within it. They cast shadows over other objects as they’re moved about.


One look at the concept and the user implicitly understands what to do with it. The desktop folder, with its contents spilling out of it, practically screams “Open me!” One caveat: interaction methods should feature the strengths of the input device rather than mapping to requirements of the real world, because computers are supposed to make our lives easier. That’s why we simply click a folder with the mouse rather than dragging it open.


The manner in which the concept interacts with other objects is implied. A desktop folder resides in a grid of similarly sized objects, thus implying an equal status and the ability to swap positions with others in the formation.


It resides within a spatial domain with clear boundaries. A desktop extends to the virtual chrome, and to the physical chrome of the display, so users don’t expect desktop folders to venture outside of this region (and they don’t!).

As with the child and the blocks, our users can be empowered to not only understand conceptual abstractions but also to manipulate them in intuitive ways. We can accomplish this by objectifying concepts in a more familiar form, grounding them within the virtual world, offering enticements to interact with them, establishing their relationships to other objects, and clearly defining the boundaries of their domain.

If you’re beating your head against the challenge of representing new concepts to your users, then you might gain traction with this approach. We might even owe this to our host of bedraggled users, whose basic need for comprehension is so often overlooked while we pursue new precedents to impress the design community.

Imagination and the Future

From the projekt202 archives

In 1878, Oxford University Professor Erasmus Wilson boldly tried to predict the future. “When the Paris Exhibition closes,” he said, ”electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.” His brave prophecy ultimately made him famous for all the wrong reasons.

While it’s easy to poke fun at those who were erroneous in their soothsaying, actually predicting the future doesn’t happen as easily. In the opening chapters of Profiles of the Future, Arthur C Clarke laid out the formula for effectively predicting the future: equal parts logic and knowledge acted upon by equal parts nerve and imagination will make for an accurate prediction. However, Clarke warns that the key is in the equal parts and that an imbalance is detrimental since “too great a burden of knowledge can clog the wheels of imagination.”

This same logic can be applied to invention as well. History shows that most groundbreaking inventions succeed on the back of both knowledge and imagination. Those that have failed lacked in either logic or imagination. As designers, we find ourselves in a unique position in relation to the future. Since we are designing for the future, we must predict what it will be like in order to design for it. Our designs simultaneously shape the future. As any designer knows, this requires a heavy dose of logic and knowledge, but also just as much nerve and imagination. Enter the psyche of a designer and you won’t find a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but rather a rational muse on one side and an imaginative muse on the other.

Designers know how important imagination is to the creative process. If we aren’t careful though, logic can end up dominating our internal design process while our creativity disappears. To help maintain a healthy balance, here are a few ways to kickstart your imagination:


  • Set your goals ridiculously high…and then meet them. One way of doing this is to create 50 or even 100 iterations of an idea rather than only 3 or 4. The logical ideas will run out around the 20th iteration and there will be no choice but to use your imagination to meet the goal.
  • Trade in the tools you are familiar with for some that are unfamiliar. Sometimes songwriters who are more comfortable on a guitar will sit at the piano or pick up a tuba and find a completely new melody. Likewise, designers can find this same success by avoiding those design tools that we are most adept at using.
  • Go the other direction. Start with what you think isn’t working, or what convention says shouldn’t work, and explore that path. You might find that those ideas have more to them than you originally thought. Think of this as the Columbus method.
  • Say “Yes” to everything. Saying “No” or being skeptical is a rational thing to do. As an idea pops into your mind, write it down, explore it, and build upon it. Soon the ideas will be flooding in. This is the key to making improvisational comedy work, among other things.

The future is coming at us faster than ever and our imagination must be primed in order to keep up. The recent proliferation of mobile interactive devices has brought with it a new grammar of interactivity that is no longer defined by traditional peripheral input. Instead, these devices are now being controlled by touch, sound and movement. And there are still bigger steps to come. Our lives are only going to get more interconnected and more interactive, leading interaction designers into new and uncharted waters that lie beyond the borders of logic.

“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” (Profiles of the Future)

Talk Is Cheap, But Actually Watching Your Users Can Be Golden

From the projekt202 archives

Last month I was fortunate enough to present a webinar with Seth Maislin of Earley and Associates and our very own Peter Eckert. If you missed it, you can still access it on the Earley web site (you will need to create a user account).

The overarching topic of the webinar was quick and dirty usability techniques. Registrants were invited to respond to a survey prior to the webinar about their use of some common user feedback techniques.  Approximately 25% of the 400 people who registered participated in the survey.

Although it was a fairly small sample, an apparent trend was revealed.  Most of the techniques folks said they are using regularly on all of their projects involved subjective opinion gathering: interviews, focus groups, and surveys. None of these techniques involved looking at anyone using an actual product! Less than 10% of the respondents were regularly employing techniques like usability testing, contextual inquiry, and cognitive walkthroughs that involve watching people interacting with a system either live or prototyped.

Why is this? Is it a cost issue? Do companies think they simply can’t afford to actually test their ideas? Gathering opinions is fine, but they are just that: opinions. And basing the design of a complex system on opinions without testing the usability is risky at best and sometimes downright foolish! What users say and what they do are two very different things.

The only true way to understand the usability of your system is to watch people use it. Watching users doesn’t have to be a costly undertaking either.  You can gain huge insight from observing just a few users, and at a minimum eliminate usability problems early on, which inevitably will save you money in the long run.

Don’t stop talking to your users, but make sure you watch them using your product too!

XAML Organization

XAML Organization

We've worked on countless WPF and Silverlight projects over the past several years and throughout that time, we've refined both our process and the organization of our solutions.  We pass off front-end code to our client developers.  So clean, understandable organization is extremely important for an effective transfer of knowledge. Most of the development teams that we work with are well versed with c# code, programming methodologies, and best practices.  But typically we find that XAML is not something that they care much about.  Due to this lack of interest folks tend to not put much up-front thought into how their Resource Dictionaries are organized, nor is there much in the way of guidance from Microsoft.  So then 3 months into their development cycle the application looks great from a code perspective, especially if the Model View ViewModel (MVVM) paradigm is followed, but digging into the various styles, templates, brush resources, etc... reveal a lot of problems.



We've talked about having a blog for a while now and we're happy to have it go live.  projekt202 has a lot of brainpower and experience within our studio walls along with the call to share.  You can expect to see topics ranging from research findings, to interaction challenges and techniques, to my favorite, front-end technologies and the UI development problems we solve. So follow along on our journey.  We hope you find some level of inspiration and insight into our areas of expertise.