January 18, 2017

Believe in Magic: User Experience Designer Rebecca Ussai at 57th CreativeMornings gathering in Chicago

One of the few times the CreativeMornings/Chicago chapter had an interface/interaction designer as a speaker was Jason Fried in 2011, who co-founded Basecamp, which is both the company and popular Web-based project management app. At the chapter’s second gathering (see my write-up), Fried offered his version of design principles, primarily dealing with clarity.

Fast forward to September, 2016, Rebecca Ussai, a user-experience design director in ad agency R/GA at the time, shared her angle on design principles at the 57th CreativeMornings/Chicago chapter meetup. Whereas Fried aligns himself to software that is useful throughout its design and build, Ussai finds insight and inspiration in Disney, whose storytelling and world-building in their animated films have become a source of reference in her work on digital projects. The long captivating appeal of Disney’s animated films is due to their execution. Their narrative substance (emotions, ideals) and style (simple focus of plot) influence Ussai’s sensibilities. She’s allowed the magic of Disney’s filmmaking to infuse her designing. To her, user-experience design and Disney are strongly connected.(1)

“Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”
—Charles Eames, Pioneering Designer, 1907–1978)
Ussai reinforced design as a discipline characterized by making connections between entities, however disparate. She connected the practice of user-experience design with the discipline of animated storytelling, exclusively the Disney model. Dubbed “UX Choreography,” she gave a tour of her five principles motivating and guiding her work. Most of which are relatively intuitive:
  1. Feedback
  2. Feedforward
  3. Spatial awareness
  4. User focus
  5. Brand voice
All of these, curated as a set of affirmations—is nothing new. Though “UX Choreography” is a regurgitation, it’s a recurring reminder of factors that people, not just those in the design world, should be mindful of in solving and making things.

With the connecting reflex in mind, I was making connections per principle that Ussai was elaborating. It was also an exercise in traceability.

With Ussai’s principle of “Feedback”—when a system communicates running results of an interaction in a manner that promotes understanding, I recalled web usability specialist Jakob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design” from 1995. The top rule of thumb is “Visibility of system status”:
“The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.”
Matching Nielsen’s principle, Ussai’s take on “Feedback” centers on mobile computing. Beyond the screen, feedback applies to workflow, indicated by this recent article “Running productive design critiques” where feedback is a refrain.

The second principle of “Feedforward” speaks to interaction designer Dan Saffer’s advocacy of what he coined “microinteractions.” To Saffer, these “are contained product moments that revolve around a single use case—they have one main task. Every time you change a setting, sync your data or devices, set an alarm, pick a password, log in, set a status message, or favorite or ‘like’ something, you are engaging in a microinteraction. They are everywhere: in the devices we carry, the appliances in our homes, the apps on our phones and desktops, even embedded in the environments we live and work in.”

Ussai’s principle of “Spatial awareness” has roots in architecture. The architect Eero Saarinen expressed it perfectly: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

The fourth principle of “User focus” recalls Allen Hurlburt’s classic book “Layout: the design of the printed page” (1977). In it, there’s a section called “Grids and systems.” These are tools for achieving a hierarchy of information. From Hurlburt, “A designer’s grid organizes specific content in relation to the precise space it will occupy.” At the time, the “precise space” was the printed page. But this concept easily connects with today’s digital display, especially the handheld mobile phone that dominated Ussai’s presentation.

Ussai’s last “UX Choreography” principle of “Brand voice” connects with the performance toolkit of “method acting,” whose goal is performing an honest portrayal—demonstrating an ease and economy of sincerity, or to use the overly propagandized synonym: “authenticity.”

What Ussai recommended can be connected or traced to something else. Our remix culture affords this kind of tethering.

When it came to the optimal time to utilize her toolkit of principles, Ussai emphasized the beginning of a project. Makes sense. But as the author Kurt Vonnegut keenly pointed out in his 1990 novel “Hocus Pocus”: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” “Maintenance” is the operative step here. “UX Choreography” can and should be engaged throughout a project’s duration, before, during and after—not only at the height of a project’s start. Because principles are pliable. They can bend over time.

And in time, it would be great to see Ussai diversify her presentation beyond the bubble of the mobile interface to other spaces. “User experience” is a multiverse. The principles identified in “UX Choreography” connect with other disciplines, such as product design and service design, even health care, and other events, such as enrolling for job benefits, buying an insurance policy, completing and delivering taxes, voting, including writing this 57th CreativeMornings/Chicago-related write-up of mine. The blinking cursor is an awesome “Feedforward” detail. At the same time, it gives consistent “Feedback.” A visual pulse in decision-making: To write on or not to write on.

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it."
—Roald Dahl, Pioneering Author, 1916–1990
Seven years ago, Apple Co-Founder and then CEO Steve Jobs said, “We want to kick off 2010 by introducing a truly magical and revolutionary new product.” The first-generation iPad was launched. At the time, journalists and tech reporters poked fun at Jobs’ use of the word “magical.” They missed the essential qualities of delight, satisfaction, or to use another word that also happens to be overly advertised in designer circles and therefore not surprisingly used by Ussai in her talk: “empathy.” Jobs recognized the empowering convergence of engineering, design and marketing. He believed in, as his biographer Walter Isaacson put it, “the magic of technology.”

The highly scalable quality of “magic” to help people be happy and productive. Something wonderful to believe in.

(1) Not a surprise that Ussai highlighted Disney, a legendary studio that’s kicking ass in producing and marketing blockbuster movies—one tiny example, persisting the “Star Wars” mythology (whether we like it or not).

• • •

As Rebecca Ussai detailed her five working principles, inspired by Disney’s narrative substance and style of their animated films, I recalled other connections claimed and seized by designers. There are designers, particularly in the same field of Ussai’s user-experience design (UXD), who connect with the storytelling model of comics, notably the 1993 book “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud. There are designers who align their creative processes to the rhythms and movements of dance. Starting this write-up coincides with the birthday of local design legend Gerald Arpino who founded the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. There are designers who channel the lens of filmmaking, such as the book “The Film Sense” (1969) by director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein.

• • •

While Ussai enjoys Disney, illustrator and visual development artist Lissy Marlin adores the narrative flow and emotion in the animated films by Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded Studio Ghibli, who make acclaimed anime feature films, like “Princess Mononoke” (1997), “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), among many more works. Read my interview with Marlin as part of my series celebrating Makers—83 interviews and growing!

• • •

Big thanks: to Braintree (who also hosted), Green Sheep, Lyft Chicago, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #57; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed who both spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to have CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008.

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Read more CreativeMornings coverage.

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