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Inspiration for UX Design from the Arts and Sciences

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A column by Janet M. Six
July 20, 2015

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses some other professions that have inspired their UX design work. Our experts have taken inspiration from such diverse fields as music, dance, philosophy, theater, and gastronomy. Have you taken inspiration from another profession and applied it in your UX design practice? If so, please share the source of your inspiration in the comments. Read on to learn about some of our experts’ sources of UX inspiration.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Peter Bogaards—Evangelist, Editor, and Coach at Informaat Experience Design
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Author of UX Careers Handbook (forthcoming); Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
  • Gavin Lew—Executive Vice President of User Experience at GfK
  • Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Director of the Center for Civic Design; Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Author and Expert at Rosenfeld Media; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet M. Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: Can other professions inspire us to be better UX designers? What are some examples of professions that might provide inspiration? Have you received inspiration for good design from a non-UX domain—for example, in the arts or sciences?—from a UXmatters reader

“It’s absolutely true that other professions can inspire us to do better UX design work,” answers Cory. “But there’s no need to look at other professions for wonderful examples of inspiration. Instead, look at your UX colleagues. You’ll find such tremendous diversity of backgrounds. Learn from your colleagues who come from backgrounds that are different from yours. Given the diversity of the UX profession, this will likely encompass many, if not most, of your colleagues.”

“There are so many places to look for inspiration in the work and lives of the people who use what we design,” replies Whitney. “User Experience should not be a closed system, but one that draws on the world around us. OpenIDEO, an online platform that enables you to work on social problems through a series of challenges, is loosely based on design-thinking methodology. While the first phase of any challenge is now called Research, it used to be called Inspirations. Nevertheless, the activity is still the same: start the design process, not by putting your head down and drawing, but by looking at the world around you.

“When I worked with OpenIDEO on a challenge for accessible voting, the Inspiration Phase included some wonderful sources. For example, people suggested all sorts of ways to think about the polling place—from community centers to things like public transport, pop-up stores, food carts,¬†and even a gas station.”

Graphic Design

“Graphic design is one area UX designers draw from a lot,” responds Gavin. “When trying to construct a mental model of a user experience, we often express many ideas as words that we try to put into a structure. What I find inspires better UX-design thinking is to take design concepts and visualize them in sketches. When you see a phrase such as ‘When I’m on my phone,’ instead of just creating a sketch of someone holding a phone, you can open up to many more ways of thinking about it. The sketch makes the situation richer and more complex.”

Philosophy, the Humanities, and Nature

“I came to User Experience via a Philosophy degree, so absolutely!” exclaims Baruch. “Take a look at the Huffington Post article ‘This Is Irrefutable Evidence of the Value of a Humanities Education’ to get a sense of the value a humanities degree has in all sorts of markets. User Experience can definitely learn from the humanities. From the obviously related field of cognitive psychology to the maybe not-so-obvious field of philosophy, any education or experience that helps hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills is very useful in design. I take a lot of inspiration from nature as well. The biological systems of animals and ecosystems all inspire the excellence in design for which we strive. And not just when we’re doing simple design, but also when we’re trying to understand how to weave complexity effectively into a design to meet a particular goal or enable the execution of a task.”

Ethnography

“Ethnography is another discipline that inspires me,” adds Gavin. “In its purest sense, ethnographic research means observing people doing what they do. This can lead to lots of ideas, concepts, and constructs. As a UX researcher, I always find it challenging to turn those constructs into solutions that fulfill a need or solve a problem—or remove a painpoint—or lead to more fun or efficiency. I like to take that purest form of research and incorporate contextual inquiry. After doing ethnographic research, we can ask probing questions to get answers for some of our hypotheses. So we get closer to the truth rather than simply being inspired by what we’ve found, then huddling up in isolation to come up with solutions.”

Culinary Arts

“What we, as experience designers, can learn from the culinary arts has fascinated me for a long time,” replies Peter. “Cooking to create eating experiences has so many parallels with our design practices. I’m intrigued by what goes on in kitchens—which has parallels with collaborative design work—and dining rooms—the actual experience. We can derive metaphors and analogies from all facets of gastronomy, and experience designers can learn from these. Both disciplines achieve high levels of craftsmanship and can bring happiness to the world.

“Seeing these kinds of parallels is a creative act in itself. Creativity means connecting things that have not been connected before. The practice of UX design for digital products could benefit from connections with any established field in which human experiences are the focus of design. I consider gastronomy as one of those fields, with its long history and deep understanding of creating food experiences that matter. The field’s ideas, work, and achievements are not only inspirational to our community, but also show what works and what doesn’t—for example, in both backstage and front-stage service design. Integrating creative thinking with a systems approach is what fundamentally connects both disciplines and practices. I see many similarities between processes in the following aspects of both disciplines:

  • kitchen and dining room—backstage and front-stage service design
  • sensorial pleasures of a plated dish—visual design
  • structure of menus, courses, and dishes—information architecture
  • texture of the bite—interaction design
  • joy of eating together—social design

“And let’s not forget the innovation that technology brings—for example, IBM’s Chef Watson, a cognitive computer that creates recipes bases on a user’s taste preferences.

“Fortunately,” concludes Peter, “I’m not the only one connecting experience design to gastronomy. For a presentation at EuroIA 2010 in Paris, I collected source materials from FoodUX.org. I maintain the Twitter account @CompCook, where I collect relevant and interesting references. If you are share my passion and start looking at cooking and eating through the lens of experience design, you’ll see neither as you saw them before. I know many experience design professionals who are foodies as well, getting their creative inspiration from the rich domain of food—both from its production and consumption.”

Theater

“My very old article ‘When the Show Must Go On, It’s Time to Collaborate Or Die’ is about the inspiration for UX design that I find from my previous life as a theatrical lighting designer,” answers Whitney. “That’s lighting in the theater, not a designer with a flair.”

For more theatrical inspirations for creativity in UX design, read Traci Lepore’s UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact.

Early UX Designers Had Many Inspirations

“Today, most newly minted UX professionals have earned degrees from colleges and grad schools that prepared them to work in the field of User Experience, so enter the profession directly,” responds Pabini. “However, in the past, that was not the case. When I got into what we now call UX design, there were very few degree programs whose subject-matter was even loosely related to the work UX professionals actually do in industry. So UX designers came from many other professions that had some overlap with User Experience—graphic design, technical writing, product management, marketing, or software development. That diversity in backgrounds enriched the field of UX design considerably. It also helped UX professionals to understand and appreciate the roles of their peers on multidisciplinary product teams.

“In college, I had studied interior design and space planning for kitchens and workspaces and a surprising amount of what I had learned was transferable to UX design. I’d also been a professional writer—writing for various types of music magazines, then later, working as a technical writer. Technical writing had given me invaluable experience working in the software industry. Writing is a key skill for UX designers—one in which far too many UX professionals are deficient—so having that background was an enormous help, too.

“However, my greatest inspiration in UX design has come from my experiences doing various kinds of improvisation—whether improvisational dance, jamming with rock bands, writing stream of consciousness poetry or lyrics, or making up new recipes based on whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand. My ability to improvise serves me well in the contexts of ideation and collaboration, when I need to come up with a stream of design ideas in response to inputs from other teammates or associate diverse concepts I’ve read about or experienced in the world.”

Computer Science

I am a classically trained computer scientist. I enjoyed getting to work with and hear about cutting-edge research in graduate school, but I was perplexed about why these amazing technologies were often so difficult for people to use. So I was inspired to combine the greatness of new technologies and usability to get innovations into the hands of everyday users. I created efficient algorithms for the automated visualization of complex data, so my work already had a human-related component. However, I knew that providing a high-quality visualization to users was only part of the equation. It also mattered how we did this.

So I read and read and read. I thought, There must be some way to make these technologies more useful. There must be a good way to enable users to work directly with these amazing technologies to create even better results. My first direct inspiration on how to achieve this goal came from Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger’s 1993 book Fuzzy Logic. Traditional computer science treats everything as a combination of zeros and ones—something either is or is not. Fuzzy logic allows us to add probability to a system in a practical way that is computable in real time. After many years of solving problems through a series of binary, Yes or No answers to questions, I was fascinated by the idea of having a series of valid Maybe answers that would lead to a high-quality result in a short amount of time.

Then I found Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, and I could not put the book down. The design issues he described were the same as those I saw in leading-edge, computer-science research, and I was excited to learn that there was, indeed, a better way.

Now, several years after graduate school, I also find inspiration in dance and music. I love to choreograph pieces of technology to work together—just as a choreographer pieces together intricate steps to create a lovely work of art. I am particularly inspired by the strength and discipline of classical ballet. I love to watch Mikhail Baryshnikov—both the huge leaps of his early days and, now, his work with up-and-coming choreographers—and Misty Copeland, whose combination of strength and grace brings me to the edge of my seat. I am also captivated by Martha Graham’s art of contemporary dance—especially by her innovation of combining traditional techniques with something totally new and unexpected.

Music is also a very important part of my work. I feel energized by the music of ambient and new-age artists such as Darshan Ambient, Yanni, Suzanne Ciani, Steven Halpern, and Jean-Michel Jarre. They inspire me to weave things together beautifully just as they do with their music. I also draw inspiration from Howard Jones’s combination of humanistic lyrics and high-energy music. Having this music playing in the background helps me to keep my focus on combining complexity in a beautiful way.  

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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