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Aaron Marcus: The InfoDesign interview

Aaron Marcus

By Dirk Knemeyer (May 2004)

Each month, InfoDesign interviews a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This month, Dirk Knemeyer interviews Aaron Marcus.

Aaron Marcus is a visionary thinker, designer, and writer, well-respected in international professional communities associated with Web, user interface, human factors, graphic design, publishing, and desktop software application development.

Dirk Knemeyer (DK): Aaron, share with us what you've been thinking about and working on lately.

Aaron Marcus (AM): I've seen developing some trends that I talked about many decades ago in a publication I prepared for the National Endowment for the Arts' Design Arts Program, on whose board I served during the 1980s. We are challenged today by a glut of information and poor processes for helping people make good decisions. We see this in the current debate about what the President should or should not have known and done in regard to the disasters of 11 September 2001. How does significant information come to the surface of our attention, present itself in an orderly fashion, and enable us to make good decisions that affect our own lives and that may affect the lives of many others?

Effective personal, community, professional, national, and global decision-making is always there as a challenge. It might concern whether I should reach for that next snack, in relation to my current cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and family medical history. It might concern whether I should reach for that next email message among the 50 that have just arrived in the last half hour. It might concern which of 500 channels of media I should watch during the next 30 minutes of my life. It might concern whether I should deploy missiles targeted to certain positions where I have determined national threats to be located. Or, it might concern what strategic facts and personality traits of delegates around a conference table might enable me to make the right proposal to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a complex political conflict.

"(...) we are going to be burdened 'more and more of much too much', with too little time and attention to cope with all that technology enables."

What the general public has little inkling of as yet is how much the glut will grow. Technology is developing the power and the bandwidth to enable all devices to communicate among themselves and with us in vast new networks, to enable each of us to become multimedia message senders to everyone else on the globe. Where does this lead? One direction is to an enormous growth of messages, to which we may need to respond. Imagine receiving news from your refrigerator about the fact that it ordered more of the milk you like from the local food delivery service, and that you need to have someone home to receive it tomorrow. This might be one among 100,000 messages that you might receive daily. This is not so unlikely a number. After all, Bill Gates told us two years ago that he was getting 4,000 messages per day. Fortunately, he has assistants to process the load. We need that kind of assistance, too.

What will help us to sift through this material? Smart filters, maybe. Smart aggregators of knowledge, maybe, to which we may be able to or are required to subscribe. But in the meantime, we are going to be burdened 'more and more of much too much', with too little time and attention to cope with all that technology enables.

Fortunately, a few professionals in the realm of knowledge visualization, knowledge management, and technology are thinking about how to improve things. One fundamental challenge that we have worked with is effective visualization of metadata, that is, data about data.

One way to 'imaginate' this challenge is to consider that in the very near future, it will be possible to review the details about 100,000 pieces of music on your wrist-top device. Which one would you like to hear next? You may be asked to characterize your choices and to review a selection of potential winners ... but there will still be 500 of them, all outstanding candidates, from which you may need/want to select the winner. And you have the patience or time for only a second or two to make a wise decision. You get the picture ... or do we? Not yet. But we shall.

Of course, you can turn over decision making to someone or something else completely. However much we enjoy doing that some of the time, most of us don't like doing that all of the time ... especially designers.

The Career of Aaron Marcus

DK: You are obviously thinking about large-scale problems and challenges. To provide our readers some context, talk a bit about your very accomplished career to date.

AM: My firm was founded 22 years ago with the objective of helping people make smarter decisions faster, any time, any place, any one, any technology, any content. Over the past two decades of rapid evolution and revolution in technology, we have seen many changes in user interfaces and knowledge visualization, our core areas of expertise. Yet the challenges and techniques of discovering simple, clear, consistent solutions to designing new metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance remain fundamental.

"Yet the challenges and techniques of discovering simple, clear, consistent solutions to designing new metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance remain fundamental."

After studying physics and philosophy at Princeton University, I started out professionally as a graphic design student at Yale University where I learned computer programming in 1966. Over the next ten years, I designed maps for Princeton University, publications about the coming age of computer graphics, signage systems, computer graphics displays, and a pictographic, multimedia narrative about global energy interdependence for governmental decision makers. AM+A (http://www.AMandA.com) started from the very beginning in 1982 designing graphical user interfaces for products that actually beat some of Apple's to the market place. Since that time, we've been fortunate to help design the first version of AOL, the first version of Travelocity, the first version of Microsoft's www.threedegrees.com, and advanced concepts for Samsung's mobile devices in preparation for their launch of new products into North America in 2002-03.

Information Design and Decision-Making

DK: You raise some very interesting points about the information problems of the future. Let's begin by looking more closely at the issue of information glut, and how that will complicate our ability to make good decisions. You allude to some general solutions to the information glut problem - things like filters and metadata - but what about good decision making? Beyond the selection and presentation of information, what role will designers play in contributing to better decision-making?

AM: Information designers can play a role in good decision-making if they are able to become involved with strategic decision-making. This usually takes place among top management in an organization, even that of an entire country. For example, during the 1970s I was told that then Vice-President Rockefeller was dyslexic, and information had to be presented to him visually. His assistants involved graphic designers to prepare a special high-level visual summary of key indicators of the USA economy. This collection of information-visualization documents was considered so valuable to the general public, that someone had the bright idea to publish these documents, and a publication called StatUS appeared for several issues. Unfortunately, with the change of an administration, the publication ceased. At least for a short time, information designers and visualizers had an opportunity to affect some vital displays of important data.

"One might get discouraged from the lack of response, but I attribute that more from our own lack of time to do follow up and to push for attention among some appropriate government officials."

Another example is the efforts of some information analysts and visualizers to improve the US tax forms (Siegel and Gale has had a major role in that effort), other government forms and decision-making graphics (David Sless, his group in Australia, and other information designers), and the attempts underway to improve the US voting forms as the technology changes. After the US election fiasco of November 2000, we, like other firms, redesigned the US ballot to improve its legibility and readability, and we even sent our designs to members of the Florida government. One might get discouraged from the lack of response, but I attribute that more from our own lack of time to do follow up and to push for attention among some appropriate government officials. This seems an opportune time, with electronic voting machines coming into greater use, to push for information analysts and visualizers to have an impact on the user interface design of such systems.

In another direction, there is some interest in the academic community of decision science to involve visual designers in the process. Recently, I was asked to be a member of the advisory board of the International Advanced Academy of Decision Science at the University of Nebraska/Omaha (http://www.iaads.unomaha.edu). The director of that program, Dr. Gerald Wagner, is trying to bring decision science methods, skills, and experience to undergraduate education and recognizes that visual design plays an important role in achieving his objectives. Hence, multimedia and other skills are being considered for the curriculum he is developing.

There are other signs that effective visualization of concepts is recognized as an important factor in bringing advanced technology to market. The fact that HP Laboratories' Director for the Consumer Electronics, Mobile and Media Systems Lab has hired us to help explain his advanced technology to key corporate stakeholders and third-party business-partner executives is an indication that key leaders recognize good information design. The proof is in the pudding: when HP's CEO Carly Fiorina comments that she can finally understand what her team is proposing (because of effective communication of concepts, facts, user scenarios, and quick prototypes of user interfaces and documents), then we realize that we are witnessing a significant shift in the perceived value of information design and information 'story¹selling'. The challenge for information designers is to get into the process at the right time and place.

User-Centered Design

DK: How well should we understand the people for whom we are designing? There are mountains of methods, quantitative and qualitative approaches, well established scientific truths about biology and physics. There is more information about people available than we can possibly use and consider. So, if our goal is effective design, what information is important? And how much is too much?

AM: User-centered design means that designers need to understand users. Sometimes, although we might consider ourselves smart, sophisticated, cultured, and experienced, we have come up against situations in which we simply can't guess what certain groups of people might do, want, or need. For Sabre, when we spent several years redesigning their extranet for travel agents, we invited two travel agents to live in our office half-time for a month so that we could understand their motivations and concerns better. We learned a lot about what made a significant difference to them. For example, we tried to show them what we thought were 'cool' information visualization techniques. They said they were nice, but not relevant to their key objective of booking flights as quickly as possible. This is not to say that we are slaves to users; rather, we try to listen to them, observe them, learn from them, and then apply best professional practices to meet their requirements as we've come to understand them from what they say as well as what they do. We do the same with other key stakeholders in the product/service development process. Fortunately, in many cases, we don't need to interview/observe thousands of people. Five to seven will do very nicely in many situations to obtain 80% of the important input.

Cultural Differences

DK: Convergence in digital product design is one of the essential challenges in the years ahead, with different products coming together and the nature and context of interfaces also changing. Given your deep experience working with digital products and interfaces over the past 40 years, what knowledge and skills would you recommend that professionals who are interested in this growing area of interest obtain?

AM: I believe that it is important to study different cultural attitudes regarding communication and use of tools for work and play. I've emphasized this theme since 1993. Recently, we've done studies to show how corporate Website standards are influenced by different cultural attitudes. For example, a collectivist country/culture will tend to show groups of people, while an individualist one will emphasize a single individual. I think we'll see differences in what's popular and what remains popular based on some of these differences. Resources of information are available, including some of the white papers on our Website. Our long study is being published in Visible Language during mid-2004.

The Profession of User Interface Design

DK: You have long identified with the term 'user interface design'. Currently, even though terms like 'user experience' and 'experience design' have some prominence, there is not a consensus as to what our community or industry should label who we are and what we do. Do you think some level of consensus and shared vision is important for us to raise our profile in the business world? And, in your experience, what terminology is most effective in communicating with the business world?

AM: I have written about this exact topic in my 'Fast Forward' column in ACM/SIGCHI's Interactions magazine. Indeed, professions use many different terms to describe what some call user interface design. Some enlarge the scope of the task to cover all of the user, or customer, experience; others focus on objects or Websites/applications and refer to interaction design. Personally, I find 'experience design' or 'user-experience design' (some call it 'user-experience engineering') either vague or grandiose. After all, architects and urban designers also are involved in such tasks.

"(...) the profession needs to focus on the business community."

In addition, some people feel user interface design connotes cosmetic or surface characteristics rather than the deeper issues. This is not true in terms of our approach; however, for some the term is tainted.

I agree that the profession needs to focus on the business community. I am not certain how business people best will understand, or value, our expertise and experience. Perhaps the best thing we could do is to practice what we preach and do some kind of study to see how the business community views our collective practices and terms, then design some kind of approach (terminology, case studies, outreach) that best meets our needs to explain and convince them of our value. We might end up using some kind of terminology that we don't even consider right now.

Practice, Writing, and Teaching

DK: You are obviously still full of energy and ideas for the future. On a personal level, what do you intend to focus on in the next phase of your career? Are there any specific things you want to accomplish?

AM: There are a couple of different directions.

Regarding practice, I hope to continue making some breakthroughs in designing advanced prototypes for mobile devices, consumer appliances, especially media devices and hubs. We are also considering how we can have a crucial role in establishing /maintaining offshore outsourcing centers for analysis/design in India and China.

Regarding writing, I hope to combine my articles and other publications over the past few years into an edited collection that will put into one place documents I have published in 10 to 20 different locations.

Regarding teaching, I hope to have an opportunity to give short courses in universities or design schools while I continue to provide industry tutorials onsite and at conferences.

Role Models of Aaron

DK: Who are some of the role models and/or mentors that had a meaningful impact on your thinking and professional development?

AM: Some of the people who have been role models and/or mentors over the past six decades of my life are the following:

My wife, Lesie Becker, also a graphic designer, and currently Chair of the Graphic Design Department, California College of Arts, who has taken a sabbatical to start the process of acquiring a PhD at the University of California/Berkeley, in the ethics of design. She is constantly curious about the world. From her I continually learn about dimensions of understanding and levels of communication about which I had little experience growing up and as an adult. Ours is a bi-cultural marriage: she is from New York, and I am from Nebraska.

My children, Joshua and Elisheva Marcus. They seemed unusually wise, even at a young age. From them, I learned, and continue to learn, about how people communicate, the differences, the nuances, and what matters most.

My parents, Nate and Bebe Marcus. They valued education and made many personal sacrifices so that their children could become well-educated, even though it meant great distances in communication, geography, intellectually, and culture.

My teacher at Yale Art School, the graphic designer Paul Rand. He taught me to be demanding about visual form and suspicious about technology, even as I embraced both.

The semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce. He managed to plumb the depth and breadth of the logic of signs, and tell about it in a cogent manner.

The semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco. He managed to plumb the depth and breadth of the cultural significance of signs, and managed to also write compelling novels based on his readings and life experience.

The Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota. He invented a new universal visible language in 1964 called LoCoS, standing for Lovers Communication System, and who has devoted himself to the design of beautiful, effective signs. Information about LoCoS and Yukio, by the way, is available at our Website (http://www.amanda.com/extranet/extranet_f.html), where you can enter:

Username: locos
Password: yuki00ta (note that those are zeros, not capital O's)

Advice, Guidance, and Insights

DK: Do you have any specific advice, guidance or insight for students and young designers?

AM: We tell applicants to our firm that they should be able to read, write, draw, think, speak, and play well. Usually, it takes a special kind of cross-disciplinary interest, skill, and experience to lead people to our kind of work and our firm. My own background in physics, philosophy, and graphic design are indicative of that blend of inquiry, playful conceptualizing and disciplined practice.

I would encourage young designers to become involved not only in worshipping at the altar of beautiful form, but also the altar of beautiful ideas. It requires that you hold membership in at least two synagogues, mosques, temples, or churches of thought and practice. This sometimes requires deft dancing between  and among different professional cliques.

"Life holds many unexpected changes, and one is usually not really locking into place anything fixed at that point. Life provides many surprises."

One other thought: young students are very worried, sometimes, whether they are making the Right Decision. At that stage of life, it is more about commitment, hard work, hard study, and openness to critiquing the results of one's current experiments in 'better living'. Life holds many unexpected changes, and one is usually not really locking into place anything fixed at that point. Life provides many surprises.

Once I thought I was going to be a physicist in a research lab at IBM. Then I worried that I might starve as a pauper in New York's Bowery trying to be a painter. Then I discovered graphic design, and that I had been unconsciously preparing for this professional practice all of my earlier life through my interests and activities in publishing, journalism, cartooning, calligraphy and photography. I just had not known what to call it, or that there was a professional practice in which I could devote all of my emotional and cognitive energy. Later I stumbled into being a university professor and computer graphics researcher. Then I stumbled into becoming the head of a world-class design/analysis firm. Little of this was foreseen or planned. Fortunately, I could stumble, recover, start crawling, then walking, running, then flying, until the next phase starts things all over again.

The Future of Information Experience Design

DK: What can we learn from our history to guide the future of design, information and experience?

AM: I have long urged students to look far back into the past and far away into other cultures in order to invent the future. If we are to be truly fecund, hearty, and healthy mothers of invention (with all due respect to Frank Zappa), then we need to be aware of very different conceptions or ways of looking at the challenges at hand. I have a special interest in Biblical times and the nature of ancient Egyptian society, technology, and art/design. I also have enjoyed being in Japan, Korea, and India to marvel at the differences, similarities, and the unique contributions to beautiful form and thought.

In a world of global communication, instant contact with others of different cultures and circumstances, it is important to have some awareness of different protocols, semiotics, attitudes toward information. When we are challenged to design the user interfaces and, in particular, knowledge visualization for the next generation of home media systems, personal medical information systems, vehicle displays, or corporate financial management systems, we want to be prepared as best we can.

For this reason, we've developed a library of documents from my past 40 years of professional practice and add to this in a number of key categories, like diagramming, culture, mobile systems, vehicle systems, etc.

Near Future Activities and Projects

DK: Do you have any interesting projects or publications coming up that you'd like to share, beyond some of the current projects you mentioned at the beginning of our interview?

AM: Thanks for asking!

I recently gave an intensive one-week short-course at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. In just five 'fun-packed days', I tried to convey to the students all I know about user-centered user interface development, knowledge visualization, mobile device UI design, vehicle UI design, Web application design, metaphor invention, new-product story selling, and cross-cultural communication. They responded by developing quick sketches to exercises I gave them. Thirty students rapidly developed about 300 initial project sketches. What a frenzy of thinking, talking and working. At the end, we were all exhausted. I am hopeful that their lives were enriched somewhat, and that they may have found some ideas and issues to pursue in their regular course work, thesis work, and future professional work.

This happens to be a period when many different publications are appearing about research and design work in which AM+A has been engaged over the past several years. Some of these publications are years in the making; they just all happen to be appearing in close sequence.

I've written a chapter about culture and user interface design that will appear in a new book edited by Aykin about international information systems. I've written a chapter on cost-justifying usability that will appear in a revised second edition of Bias and Mayhew's Cost-Justifying Usability. A third chapter will appear in a new book edited by Longoria on mobile user interface design. We were also successful in publishing our innovative concept designs for vehicle dashboards in my article in Information Visualization. On a different note, I am publishing an information-visualization-design review of the Body Worlds exhibit of dissected, dessicated, plastinated corpses in Information Design.

We are just publishing in the current issue of Visible Language, a 64-page study of the influence of culture on global corporate Websites, which was primarily prepared by our former designer/analyst Valentina-Johanna Baumbartner, a graduate of the Fachhochschule Joanneum, Graz, Austria. We looked at B2B and B2C companies like Coke, McDonald, SAP, Peoplesoft, and Siemens. Sure enough, in collective societies, the photo required by the corporate identity standards would have multiple people, and in the individualist country, it would be a single individual. I think the results of our study may influence corporate Website and application designers to think more deeply about and plan better for globalization, localization, and the influence of culture on people's expectations and preferences in the design of physical form and communication.

We are also publishing a paper based on Valentina's thesis project, which assessed the best dimensions of culture by which professionals assess products and services. From that a 'best of breed' set were determined. The paper will be in the proceedings of the fourth Asian-Pacific Computer-Human Interaction conference.

In addition, we shall be publishing soon at our own Website, or through conferences, our own investigations of music metadata visualization, a cross-comparison of Internet music stores, and how navigation to music might be accomplished on wrist-top devices. We undertake these self-funded design projects to stimulate discussion and new projects among our prospects and clients.

One of the most challenging projects we have now is to explain in a 'corporate storytelling presentation' all of the major R+D projects of a major corporation's research group for consumer electronics, mobile, and media products/services. This project stimulates and demands action from every neuron in our brains, just to understand all the technology, concepts, and implications, then to convey a coherent story, invent some use scenarios of the future, and design quickly some likely user interfaces for products and services about 5-10 years out. This is very exciting, challenging and stimulating.

"This is very exciting, challenging and stimulating."

At the same time, we continue to provide information display and interaction design solutions for Visa, Wells Fargo Bank, and other large corporations who have enormous collections of applications, intranets, extranets, and of course Websites that need improvement. In addition to designing new screens, financial information layouts, and navigation among text and graphics, we also do usability testing, heuristic evaluations, and help focus groups.

One other initiative we have started is to return to our roots. Twenty years ago, we started with a DARPA funded research/design project to improve the visualization of the C programming language. We proved that our designs increased comprehension, not just reading speed, by 20% among novice programmers. Recently, I've begun to reach out to the software engineering world, offering multi-day training courses in user-centered, user interface development, such as the one we recently provided to Visa, and which I have given to software developers and usability specialists in Bangalore, India, home of India's IT revolution. I have also published several articles about user interface design in Software Development, whose target audience is software engineers.

However, I have also continued to write a regular series of essays in my 'Fast Forward' column for Interactions, the flagship publication of ACM's SIGCHI organization, the primary international user-interface design organization with chapters throughout the USA and abroad.

While I have carried out these publication efforts, we continue to work at both strategic and tactical levels for our clients. As you can see, we serve our clients and our profession both as high priests and plumbers, and everything in between.

Some Final Thoughts

DK: Share some final thoughts that you would like for people to take away from this interview.

AM: Not everyone is interested in the fundamental challenges of information research, design, analysis, visualization, evaluation, documentation. We recognize that there are many other directions for talented individuals.

However, we are convinced that the discipline of information design/visualization is fundamental to good education, to good business, to a good home life, to a good personal life, to a well-run democracy, to good government, to informing a public about its responsibilities and rights, to develop communities of interest that can take action to live better individually and collectively. The threads of information design/visualization run deep and broadly through our sustainable ecology of media and ecosystems of civilization.

By the way, information is just one of the steps that begins with data. We define information as significant collections of data, knowledge as significant collections of information plus action plans that lead to effective decision-making, and wisdom as significant collections of knowledge plus experience in the real world.

Our objective is, in a sense, to improve globally our collective wisdom visualization (and sonification, and tactilization, of course) about our Earth, ourselves, and others, so that we can appreciate as well as we can the incredibly intricate and sustainable world we live in and ensure, through good thoughts, words, and deeds, that it prospers for as many of us as possible.

About Aaron Marcus

Aaron Marcus is the founder and President of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A: http://www.AMandA.com). A graduate in physics from Princeton University and in graphic design from Yale University, in 1967 he became the world's first graphic designer to be involved fulltime in computer graphics.

In the 1970s, he programmed a prototype desktop publishing page layout application for the Picturephone™ at AT&T Bell Labs, programmed virtual reality spaces while a faculty member at Princeton University, and directed an international team of visual communicators as a Research Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

In the early 1980s, he taught at the University of California/Berkeley, was a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, founded AM+A, and began research as a co-principal investigator of a project funded by the United States Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to visualize the C programming language more effectively. In 1992, he received the National Computer Graphics Association's annual award for contributions to industry. He was the keynote speaker for ACM/SIGGRAPH-80, and the organizer and chair of the opening plenary panel for ACM/SIGCHI-99.

Aaron Marcus has written over 150 articles; written/co-written five books, including (with Ron Baecker) Human Factors and Typography for More Readable Programs (1990), Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces (1992), and The Cross-GUI Handbook for Multiplatform User Interface Design (1994) all published by Addison-Wesley; contributed chapters/case studies to seven books of user interface design, information appliances, and culture, including three industry Handbooks; and serves on the editorial/advisory boards of five industry publications, including Interactions and User Experience.

For the last decade, Aaron has turned his attention to Web, mobile, and vehicle user interface and information-visualization design, training leaders for centers of excellence, providing guidelines for globalization/localization, and focusing on the challenges of 'baby faces' (small displays for consumer information appliances) of ubiquitous devices and cross-cultural communication.

Aaron Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years and has been an invited keynote/plenary speaker at conferences of ACM/SIGCHI, ACM/SIGGRAPH, Usability Professionals Association (UPA), and the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society, as well as conferences internationally. He is a visionary thinker, designer, and writer, well-respected in international professional communities associated with Web, user interface, human factors, graphic design, publishing, and desktop software application development.

About Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk is the Chief Design Officer at Thread Inc. One of the architects behind 'InfoDesign: Understanding by Design', Dirk is a prolific writer and frequent public speaker. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design and the AIGA Center for Brand Experience. Dirk's primary interests include using Design as a catalyst to improve business and culture.

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