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Nathan Shedroff: The InfoDesign interview

By Dirk Knemeyer (March 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 Nathan Shedroff.

Nathan is one of the pioneers of experience design and popularized the term with the first dedicated book on the topic. He is an expert and leader in the fields of information architecture, interaction design and online and interactive media, with extensive professional experience as an innovator.

Dirk Knemeyer (DK): Nathan, what's been occupying your mind and attention lately?

Nathan Shedroff (NS): Well, besides a little teaching and some new book projects, and my software company, I've been working on a project to help people buy products based on their social values instead of merely price. It's a set of information solutions that display, ultimately, personalized ratings for products based on a variety of issues. It's just at its starting phases so most of the work - and all of the hard parts - are still ahead.

The first part is a voluntary labeling system for products that integrates a series of different environmental and social figures for companies and products. I think it's important to include both some specific numbers (to help explain the context for the rating) and a single synthesized rating (the big number). The entire project needs to balance context and ease, clarity and detail.
See also:

The other pieces involve interfaces for specific media (PDA's, cell phones, kiosks, web pages, etc.) for people to not only inquire about their favorite products (and make choices) but to also customize the ratings around their own issues, whatever they may be. Only then have we built a mechanism for people to vote their concerns within the marketplace and for companies to be rewarded for acting in socially accepted and socially beneficial ways. Without some kind of mechanism like this, I believe, we can yell ourselves blue in the face and create endless posters and legislation but it's not really going to change anything.

It's also an indication of where design can have a meaningful impact in creating change. I'm not a big fan of the typical design response of creating political posters or logos for non-profits. These aren't bad by any means (though I've seen way too many egregious posters), but they don't really create change, only pretty it up. I think that designers need to see themselves as agents of change and not just organizers or decorators of it.

DK: Your activities and interests reflect a deeper philosophical focus and concern for the world than we typically see in design, let alone business. This new project, to help people buy products based on social values, is another indication of that. Going beyond the design realm for a moment, talk specifically about your broader worldviews, your interest in creating change and how that intersects with design.

NS: I think that design processes are a great way to approach problem solving as well as understanding the world around us. I'm thankful that my design education was in a field that necessitated the balancing of many, often conflicting needs and, at least, a LITTLE group collaboration. Those aren't viewpoints that are common enough in most design fields. I truly believe that design can create change for the better but most designers view their place in the world as decorators of one form or another. Some view performance and usability as within their domain but few of these even view business issues, social issues, or structural issues as falling within their domain. To be sure, we're not endowed with these skills and we aren't trained to practice even at a tactical level, but that doesn't mean we can't - or shouldn't - learn and get involved.

I think that many designers are frustrated with systems that they figure out too quickly: be given a project and it's requirements, ask a few questions about the audience, find inspiration from somewhere, make it work a little better and/or make it look nicer, rinse, repeat. While this might have an impact on the particular product or service and its few users, it never calls into question whether that product or service should be continued - or begun - in the first place. The specs are never what we think the real issues are and the big decisions are already made by the time we're anywhere near the project. The only time we get to question these issues are on our own projects or very small ones. So, we never feel like we're "making a difference" in anything substantial. Everything we do is incremental or micro on the scale of possible change. It's very disempowering after awhile and I think a lot of designers just give up thinking that anything is possible.

But, we still see problems all around us. Talk to any design audience about the government, the administration, industries, the zeitgeist - whatever - and you'll hear dissatisfaction with the way things are. Our problem isn't identifying problems that need fixing but understanding the nature of the problem and where the real pressure points are, and then envisioning ourselves contributing to the solution. School projects, for example, that approach "political" issues teach us that we should design an organization's logo or a political poster and then we've contributed. It makes sense from the traditional design view (these are our skills, apply them where we can), but it ignores two things: 1) that design skills and processes can contribute to solving problems other than appearance and "awareness" and 2) that we're not only designers. We are also citizens and there's no reason why we can't get involved like other citizens that don't have design skills.

Another issue is how insular and elitist most designers and design approaches are. Sure, we have a little space for the "user" to input their needs and worldview but then we're off crafting our solutions in our own vacuum again. We have this wonderful technique called "personas" and "scenarios" but most of either I've ever seen are (unintended) jokes. They're not real people, they're just renamed, re-demographed versions of ourselves. I've never seen a persona that didn't assume that the user was bright, interesting, interested, committed to solving a problem, generally happy, inquisitive, etc. That's not a reflection of many users. It's a reflection of ourselves. Demographic-based personas don't do much for our insight - at least, not as much as psychographic-based personas. Have you ever seen a scenario where someone HAD to turn to the help system or manual? How about a scenario where the user's manager was standing over them with their arms crossed counting how much time she spent on the phone with the customer? So, we're really not realistically aware of the world out there and how many people have to live in it.

Next, we're elitist (at least, as an industry). We rail about the bad design we see in mainstream products and services, stores, advertisements, clothes, etc. We assume that everyone but us has terrible taste. It may even be true but we don't do anything meaningful about it. I've seen designers cave to "marketing people" over demands to change some element of the solution without ever trying to understand why, or questioning the demand. At the very least, this is an opportunity to learn something about a field that, mostly, rides heard over design in most companies. Most designers never care to learn the language of business people - or anything about their values and concerns in order to defend their work in a meaningful way. Instead, they retreat to their studios, complain, and dream about working for someone else. In fact, most designers can't actually discuss their work intelligently because they don't know WHY they made certain decisions, which they learn in school. We learn to hide behind the words "intuition" and "creativity" purposefully mystifying it so that it obscures our interaction and responsibility.

We can't blame people for not knowing our language or sharing our values. We don't expect customers or "users" to understand the language of the company, yet we make the same mistakes ourselves within our own organizations. If we really cared about the low understanding and appreciation for design in our societies we'd launch a massive education campaign on the public - in their language and around their values - and raise the issues ourselves. If our industry cared about the future of our profession, we'd stop giving ourselves awards and accolades and build, distribute, and teach a curriculum at the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th grade levels in our schools - or, at least, the 3rd and 9th. It would take about 8-10 years and you would see a gigantic difference in the overall value design is given in our society. That's not long at all. In 10-15 years we'd have business people installed in companies who appreciated design and marketing data reporting that the general public valued design. In another ten the decision makers in the biggest companies in the country would already value and support design. That's a pretty amazing Return On Investment - but, then, we don't think in those terms either.

DK: Your comments lead to a question that I did not intend to broach but now seems particularly relevant. What do you mean by the words "design" and "designers"? While your own background includes design training at a very complicated and multi-disciplinary level - specifically automobile design - my interpretation of your comments is that you position designers in the defined domain of visual problem solving. To establish some shared understanding, can you clarify your use of terms here?

NS: Well, because of the specific example I was discussing above, I probably leaned too heavily on the visual design field over others. In general, my definition of "Design" (with a "big D") is VERY inclusive and expansive. That's also my approach to Experience Design. Now, that includes the typical design disciplines: environmental, interaction, information, visual, product, transportation, fashion, architecture, etc. and also overlaps really well with all forms of communication (writing, film, advertising, audio, animation, television, etc.). Some of the less traditional design disciplines include: organizational, business, marketing, branding, and even science. This isn't to say that everything that goes on in these fields is design but that design happens in these endeavors too. You and I serve on the board for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience and one of our board members is a scientist and entrepreneur that only recently realized that what she does is design. Now, she doesn't know a lot about color or typefaces or paper or plastic modeling, but she solves complex problems in systematic ways with more than a little concern for user/customer/audience needs. Whether she's building a company or deriving a design for the national IT security infrastructure, she's designing in the same way that other designers do.

This diagram is a start. Design either encompasses or touches all of this (and probably more)

thumbnail diagram

DK: Perhaps your most enduring piece of scholarship to date is "Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design". Written now 10 years ago, it remains remarkably fresh and insightful. Obviously "Information Interaction Design" did not catch on as a discipline, but to what degree is that vision similar to what you now call Experience Design? And building off your explanation of "Big D" Design, where are the disciplinary boundaries of Experience Design?

NS: Ah, I guess all my best work is behind me now. :)

"Information Interaction Design" (as a term) served its purpose for the moment. It was a way of helping people through the connection between interaction issues and information issues. Back then, information design understandings and techniques were barely used in digital projects - mostly print. It was a new domain to the interface design community. Also, very little about interaction was either explored or understood; in many ways, this is still the case today. If I had thought to name it Experience Design then and come out full bore, it would have been way too much for most people. As it was, Experience Design wasn't a term invented or discussed. However, people like Brenda Laurel were already making statements like "It's the experience, stupid!" In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that was a direct quote.

A little over ten years ago I was already talking about the experiences we were developing and trying to find its boundaries - as well as innovative and meaningful ways to help people understand them ( At the time, of course, most people were still talking almost exclusively about technology. How little things change.

The boundaries of Experience Design are, simply, the boundaries of experiences. That includes, at least, all of our senses (which may be more than 5), time, three dimensional space, our attempts and abilities at creating meaning, our values, our economic sensibilities, our emotions, interactivity, etc. For sure, there are more than these high-level categories and there are many topics within these. I'm sure we'll be recognizing new ones for quite a while. But, the point is that these are always active - in every experience and every project. Ignoring them is silly and short-sighted, if not ignorant. Not every project can take advantage of all of these factors, of course, but that doesn't mean that the opportunity isn't there and that these forces aren't already at play. Experience Design as an approach is, simply, a way of addressing as many of these topics as possible. Each one might be addressed only for a week, a day, or an hour, but it's important to consider the possibilities.

DK: Do we need some sort of formal inter-disciplinary focus on and understanding of Experience Design? There are already so many different industry organizations covering various design disciplines, not to mention they are largely not coordinated or integrated. Given where our various communities are today, what ideas do you have to make meaningful progress?

NS: In a word, absolutely. It doesn't have to be a mirror group, duplicating the same efforts but from an Experience Design perspective. Since Experience Design IS the integrative strategy that is needed (at least on the design side of the equation), it could either be a separate group or some kind of intergroup action. Something tells me that it will be very difficult to do the former and even more difficult to do that latter. This is evident in the competitions, exhibits, literature, and promotions that these groups do. Every group seems to be focused on one little part of the problem and tends to be deeply adverse to peaking their heads up to see the horizon - or beyond it. It's weird and frustrating and even sad, at times, how much designers resist learning once they get out of school. Especially in technology-laden disciplines (such as interaction design, web design, and industrial design), trying to get designers to acknowledge non-technological or material issues is ridiculous.

I don't think that Experience Design, as an approach, has to be the central focus at all times. Indeed, it's just the connecting tissue and holistic vision anyway. I can envision a periodic summit or conference with the involvement of lots of groups that, together, explore each other's space and see the whole for a little while. Unfortunately, a lot of these groups are little fiefdoms run by and for people who are trying to further their careers in their respective disciplines. Many exist only to hear themselves and each other speaking. When you approach these groups with something new or perspectives a level above what they normally focus on, it's often seen as a threat.

For years, I've envisioned a really exciting conference that could be an integrative moment, as well as a chance for discussion and not only presentation. The economics haven't been there over the past few years but, perhaps, the time is nearing to reconsider the idea.

DK: I have found the concept of Experience Design to be threatening to people, particularly more veteran practitioners, even to the point of people flatly saying, "There is no such thing as Experience Design." Personally, I identify with and use the term, yet even I find myself trying to distinguish how Experience Design is any different from "Big D" Design. It would seem that everything is an experience and thus everything is - or should be - Design/Experience Design. When is Design not Experience Design?

NS: The problem here is that the word "design" has so many different meanings in so many different contexts to so many different people. The general public, for example, most likely understands the word in terms of fashion or interior design. Most business people associate the word with graphic design, or worse, graphic art. So you can't just say, "I'm a designer" or even "I'm a Designer." Even the term "Design with a big 'D'" is a problem because some people in the industry equate that to "elitist, egotistical designers who are difficult to manage or work with."

If our fellow designers were more open-minded and better about expanding the scope of their skills, definitions, and experience, we could all probably get by with Communication Design. It's focused on the message (and implies focus on the user/audience) and is media-agnostic. However, in practice, Communication Design programs, departments, and professionals are very likely to not have a user-centric focus, trans-media skills, or an approach to wider communication issues.

The reason why I think the term Experience Design is useful is because it's an ever-present reminder of the wider design issues we need to approach. It's very accurate since we are designing experiences. But, since most design disciplines or processes take into account broad issues across the social, cultural, emotional, spatial, and sensorial range, we don't ask these questions and build solutions to address them. Therefore, you could spend your time trying to reform each design discipline individually or you can try to address them all at once with an umbrella. The other nice thing about this approach is that you can start building connection between disciplines (and people within them) that might not have otherwise been made. Simply showing the similarities between fields can help open designers' minds to new possibilities.

The problem with Experience Design as a term is that a lot of people in 2000-2003 jumped on the term as the "latest, greatest" hype for interaction design or just web design. I think it was lucky, in fact, that the economic bust in the industry occurred right when it did since it took the wind out of much of the hype and left the term remarkably unscathed. There are still some people who use it as a way to embellish web design, but they're fewer now in comparison to those who truly want to design more encompassing experiences.

To answer your last question, "Design" is not Experience Design when it is being used by someone who has a more limited definition. There's no way to police the term at a personal level - or even an industry level. Both are going to always be dynamic. If you were talking to the Eames', for example, I bet they would see no difference between their approach and either of these two terms.

DK: Yes, agreed. Let's change gears. Games play an important role in your recent "New Methods for Designing Effective Experiences". Talk about the role and importance that games play in the design of experiences. And what lessons can other designers take from the field of game design?

NS: Well, to tell the truth, I've never been a big computer gamer. I think I stopped after Tempest in the arcade world and Uninvited and Shadowgate in the Mac gaming world (circa 1993 or '94). I much prefer games in the physical world that involve more immediate interaction with others and physical activity. However, digital and online games make fantastic use of interactivity - that's what makes them fun to play. This necessitates a combination of control and feedback that has to be balanced well with the game goals. If it's out of balance, the game is either too difficult to play or too obscure.

Game design is a good source of inspiration for highly interactive experiences and some goal-directed experiences. However, games are, mostly, focused on entertainment and not information or productivity in a business or academic sense. This is why most "edutainment" is so terrible. Since the higher goal of playing a game is entertainment and not the production of something informative, it's just inappropriate and often unsuccessful to cast these later experiences as games. In addition, many games are geared toward a specific type of game play (mostly competitive, often "twitch" or quick, repetitive movements, etc.). Many experiences, even playful, entertaining ones, don't have the same flow and rhythm. This means that "learning from game design" might put you on the wrong track entirely if you only define game design as the development of computer/arcade games. Examples of games that aren't focused on the typical game play paradigms are "New Games" (see the book by Andrew Fluegelman and Shoshana Tembeck) and Purple Moon's Rocket and Secret Paths CD-ROM game series.

DK: Recently,you spent some more time at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII), where you are a member of the "Explorer's Club" and a frequent lecturer and participant. Share some of your thoughts about and experiences with the things happening at Ivrea, particularly how the methods and approaches being employed can provide insight and guidance for the rest of us.

NS: IDII is an interesting place as it mixes a research center with a Masters program. I haven't been as involved as in the previous school year, and it's a quickly evolving space, so I can't really comment on everything that goes on there. However, in the last few years, I have been impressed with a lot of the approaches and processes that people there have invented and codified.

I summarized some of them in my chapter in Brenda Laurel's new book, Design Research, but it was a shortened version of the larger article so it's missing some of the explanations. I think that many of these processes are important because they can help designers better understand non-traditional issues like emotions, values and meaning. These are hardly ever addressed in practice and I've never seen processes in the standard user-centric methods. The tough thing about these topics is that people have natural defenses to sharing them. So, you can't simply ask people outright what their feelings are. This is only a more extreme case of what happens when you ask people (especially the client) what the goals, messages and audiences are for a project. Undoubtedly, the ones expressed first aren't terribly accurate or illuminating and, often times, you don't find out what the true motivations are until you're well into the development process.

What's nice about many of these techniques is they help garner insight in an indirect way. Instead of asking people what their life goals are or how they're feeling, if you give them another task that's adjacent to this information, their answers will be both illuminating and a more accurate portrayal of these things. Cheskin, for example, are masters at this. When they performed the primary research for the development of Purple Moon's games, they used many wonderful techniques to understand their market (teen and pre-teen girls) in ways that were missed by most other research - especially focus groups. For example, instead of asking girls what's important to them in their lives, ask them to photograph themselves, their friends, and their rooms. You'll see very quickly what's important to them, who they idolize, what brands they buy, how they spend their time, etc. in ways more accurate than if you asked them directly. Many of the processes developed at IDII do the same thing - and in non-threatening ways.

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

NS: Richard Saul Wurman, obviously. I worked with him over three or four years. Charles and Ray Eames. I'm still learning things from them. Tibor Kalman, Brenda Laurel, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Phillipe Starck, Roger Schank, Neil Postman, and most of my friends.

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

NS: Almost everything. We have a rich history of interaction and experience. We know a lot about satisfying people, entertaining them, and helping them make things but almost all of this knowledge is lost on our industry because, for the most part, we don't look back very often. When we do, we most often confine our search to "technology" fields, meaning, computer technology. There is very little to learn about what we've created in the last few years - especially on the Web because it's too new and too immature. We can learn much more from the things we've been creating over the last thousand - or million - years. Most of these things haven't changed a lot. Our emotions haven't. Our needs haven't. Our desires certainly have - at least on the surface.

So, aside from the technological component to Design, experience, etc., we have a lot to learn about the human, social, business, and design components. This is why art history is usually required in a design degree. It's also why more humanities studies (like sociology, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology) should be required, as well as business studies. In general, designers just don't know enough about people to do a better job at creating experiences for them than they are already, but it's especially true in the web/online world.

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?

NS: Well, I hesitate to discuss works in progress as it looks bad if I don't actually finish them but, then, I did name my last book Experience Design 1. Currently, I'm in the process of finishing and selling a company I've been doing for two years so the rest of this year is really up in the air as to what my responsibilities and available time might be. I am in discussions about a book on the strategic nature of design, sort of the business/strategy component to Experience Design 1. The two together complete the picture of what design can be and how it can be practiced successfully and realistically. I also have other books I'd love to finish this year but finding a publisher is still difficult. I'm halfway finished with Experience Design 2 and far along on Experience Design 3. I have design tools designed for each book that take the concepts in the books and make it easy for designers to integrate them into their development processes.

There's also the project I mentioned at the beginning of this interview and, hopefully, later this year I can turn it into a real project. I'm investigating the possibility of building a company or foundation around the management and deployment of the system and data. That would change everything. Even though it's pretty subversive, I think it can be successful. But, it's months to years away from happening still.

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

NS: I think that designers need to keep looking outside the accepted medium if they want to learn about how to make more successful interfaces, products, services, experiences, etc. I also think that designers need to better realize that they can put their skills to work to create change and not merely publicize or decorate it.

About Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff is one of the pioneers in Experience Design, an approach to design that encompasses multiple senses and requirements as well as related fields, Interaction Design and Information Design. His speaking, books, teaching, and projects all support this new direction of design. Part designer, part entrepreneur, his skills lend themselves to strategic thinking and design for companies who want to exploit the strengths of experience media in order to build better experiences for their customers and themselves in a variety of media, including: print, digital, online, and product design. Growing-up in Silicon Valley has given him an entrepreneurial understanding and outlook. He currently lives in San Francisco where the climate, culture, and industry make it easy to have an esoteric and amorphous sounding title like Experience Strategist and actually make a living.

Nathan earned a BS in Industrial Design, with an emphasis on Automobile Design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. However, fear of Detroit, coupled with a passion for information design led Nathan into this arena, where he worked with Richard Saul Wurman at TheUnderstandingBusiness. Later, he co-founded vivid studios, a decade-old pioneering company in interactive media. vivid's hallmark was helping to establish and validate the field of information architecture, by training an entire generation of designers in the newly emerging Web industry.

Nathan has recently established a software company called Deluxe, which builds coordination tools for small businesses. He teaches and speaks often at international colleges, like the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy, where he serves on the advisory board. He has written extensively on the subject, including, Experience Design 1, which explores common characteristics in all media that make experiences successful, and maintains a website with resources on Experience Design at

Nathan was nominated for a Chrysler Innovation in Design Award in 1994 and 1999 and a National Design Award in 2001.

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 as well as the AIGA Brand Experience community. Dirk's primary interests include using Design as a catalyst to improve business and culture.

Books that feature Nathan's writings:

experience design 1

Design Research: Methods and Perspectives

Information Design

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