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Peter Bogaards on a UX Canon

“… it’s my list, which of course shows how I see our fundament, historically speaking.”

Peter Bogaards is an evangelist, educator, and coach at Informaat experience design. Peter has shared design knowledge via his InfoDesign blog since 1997. In this conversation, we discuss his recently proposed canon on UX.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Peter. Welcome to the show.

Peter: Well Jorge, thank you for inviting me; love being here.

Jorge: It’s a pleasure having you on the show. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Peter

Peter: Sure. It’s quite a long story, but I’ll give you the short version of it. I have a background from the eighties, I would say, in instructional design. So, I focused long ago on how people interact with technology and how technology could improve learning capabilities — formal and informal. Then I got into the nineties where I started working for a company called Informaat. And I’ll tell you a little bit about that later. That was the time when the PC was born and was being implemented in large organizations and internal systems were developed. And because they had to design graphical user interfaces at the time, I also became a user interface designer and an information designer. That was kind of the work I did for seven years.

Then the web got started and I got very much intrigued with it, but I thought… And by the way, I’m Dutch! I’m from the Netherlands, so across the pond. And, at the time, I thought the web was really something special. So, I left the company, and became a part of what I would call the “internet bubble,” working for US companies like Razorfish, who was then also having offices in Amsterdam. And I got a lot of inspiration in those years. I also was a victim, if I may say, of the burst. So, from one day to the other, I had to go freelancing.

Now at the end of the nineties, being involved with everything concerning web, I also started a curated portal called informationdesign.org or InfoDesign, on which I published — on a very regular basis, almost daily — all kinds of things that I found on the web that I thought was interesting or remarkable and shared it across the community. And that sort of saved my professional life a bit because people knew what I was doing. So, through the web, I got my first assignments and I was very pleased of course with it.

So, for five, six years, I was freelancing for large companies like Nokia and Nissan and IBM. And then in 2006, I got a phone call from the founder of Informaat again, and he said, “well, would you like to come back and become an evangelist for user experience design in Holland?” And of course, I was very pleased. So, I came back to Informaat in the experience design company. And so, I embarked on the journey to become an evangelist for a user experience design.

And after five, six years — we’re now talking about 2011 — a lot of things happened around social media. So, they asked me to become what was then called “content marketer.” That meant that I had to start using the obvious social media platforms. And then, after five years, which is sort of the final part of my background, I got involved in higher education. That meant that I was asked to contribute to a new master program for digital design. And I started to teach students on the professional and academic level.

A canon of UX

Jorge: I am one of the people who benefited from the things you were sharing on InfoDesign. So thank you for that. And interestingly enough, that is what brings us together today as well, in that you recently published a post on the canon… or a canon of user experience. Without spilling it all out, I’ll just say that the post resonated with me. And I was hoping that you would share with the listeners about this idea of a canon of user experience. What do you mean by “a canon”?

Peter: Well, a canon is a sort of list of important works familiar in the humanities, I would say. And it sort of provides an overview of what are considered the important works of field from a historical perspective. Now, of course, somebody has called it a personal passion project. So, it’s my view on our history. But it’s an attempt to collect and to curate a set of works from a long time ago, which are considered to be foundational for our field. So, in that respect, it’s my list, which of course shows how I see our fundament, historically speaking.

Jorge: I’m going to quote from the post. It says, “without being familiar with the ‘classics,'” — and classics is in quotes — “there is always the danger of repeating mistakes from the past. And also proper knowledge of the ideas, theories, and works of previous movers and shakers is always interesting, valuable, and useful.” I’m wondering first, if you could give us some examples of works that you believe are foundational, and then tell us why they might be interesting, valuable, and useful to someone who is practicing in the field now.

Peter: Well, let’s take a work by Licklider. It’s from 1960, it’s called, Man-computer symbiosis, and it’s one of the first documents outlining what the relation can be between — or should be — between a person and a computer. Now as you might know, Licklider was a very important figure in the whole ARPA community, which led to the internet and et cetera. So, he was really from the early ages.

Now in that document, he outlines a symbiotic relationship between the two agents: the person and the computer. And currently, there is a lot of debate going on what the relationship is with artificial intelligence systems. Do we become too dependent on it? Are they taking things over? But Licklider gives us a point of view in which both entities benefit from each other. And that means that we can currently reframe how we can look at the interaction and the relationship between a human being and a system driven by artificial intelligence.

So this is an example of a text from the past — from the long past — which can provide us new inspiration of looking at current… let’s say, issues we are dealing with.

Jorge: So, I’m putting myself in the position of a young designer who is working on such a problem, and they are dealing with having to learn the technologies, having to study the domain from a conceptual perspective, maybe understand user needs… there’s all this work to be done. And just putting myself in their shoes, I’m thinking, “well, why would I bother with a sixty-plus year old text on this when the technologies at that time were so different from the things that I’m having to deal with now.” What would you say to those folks?

Peter: Well, I would say the technologies might have changed in all the decades past us, and are going to change in the future. But the threat is of course that you’re always dealing with, let’s say, human issues related to technology. So, the manifestation might be different, but the concepts underlying let’s say this old text and the ideas that this old text might give you might be future-proof, I would say. You can still learn all kinds of abstract concepts and ideas from the past and apply it in the current technological environment. And you can get great inspiration out of those kinds of text and ideas, and you can sort of look through all the current, let’s say, tools and techniques that you’re probably have to learn. So it’s mostly for inspirational purposes, but it can also provide you a point of reference at a more abstract level to see what can be useful for you.

Why is a canon needed?

Jorge: I’m wondering what led you to create a list of a potential canon for UX? Why do you think such a thing is needed?

Peter: Well, as I said in my introduction, in the last, let’s say, five, seven years, I’ve been involved with all kinds of projects in higher education. Be it professional training, be it academical programs, bachelor level, master level, and not only teaching but also assessing portfolios, being part of our accreditation committee. And what struck me was that all over the board, of course, not only students, but especially also teachers, have a lack of enough historical knowledge of our field. And that’s to a certain extent understandable because most of our education in this respect is applied to practice: learning tools, learning techniques and methods, et cetera. But I experienced a lack of historical knowledge on stuff, if I might say so. So, I thought, why don’t I create a tool — this list can be used as a tool — for educational purposes that can be used by all kinds of design schools or design institutions around the world. So, I hope to achieve that and that across the board, the historical knowledge of the educational system of our field increases.

Jorge: We are lucky in that many of the resources — I think all the resources you list here — have links. Because this is a web-based artifact, you are a couple of clicks away from obtaining your own copy, right? So there’s little excuse for folks not to check these out.

Peter: Yeah, that was an explicit requirement for myself; I wanted to lower the barrier towards the work, as much as possible. So, I did some research of how to obtain the originals of those seminal works.

Four periods in UX history

Jorge: The list of canonical works — and you clearly state in the post that this is a list and you welcome contributions to it — the list is divided into four periods. And the four periods are… you call them “The Roots,” which is from 1945 to ’65, “The First Signs,” which is from 1965 to 1980, “The Formation,” from 1980 to 2000, and “The Candidates,” from 2000 to the present. And I’m wondering why those four and why those dates. Are there any particular reasons why you chose to divide it in this way?

Peter: Well, let’s start with the first periods. It’s very common to look at our history from World War II on. And the seminal work of Vannever Bush is always used as the sort of starting point. We can even have a debate on that, even! But that’s another issue. So, that means that even though there were no personal computer at that time, people really started already to think about what the, let’s say, impact of technology — computer technology — could be. The second phase is sort of the phase that people having been inspired by these previous work, start to think about all kinds of… and let’s say visions of the future. It’s very well known for instance that Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson were heavily influenced by the As You May Think article.

And then, of course, a lot of things happened in the eighties and on: personal computers were born; ordinary people were able to access computing and even with the birth of the personal computer industry, people started to use them and it became obvious that a lot of attention needed to be paid to make them usable and to think about all the possibilities on a personal computing level that they could be.

Now then we have the point of 2000s. 2000 is sort of, broadly speaking, the time at which we would say user experience and user experience design was actually coming to the forefront and exploded. Also with the proliferation of the web, of course into thousands and thousands of publications. So I call that “The Candidates,” because if you talk about seminal works, the more recent a work is, the harder it is to determine upfront if something becomes seminal. So if you look at the list you can see that the overall majority of all the works is pre-2000. That means that in the last 20 years, there are hundreds of works that still need to, let’s say, become… or keep their value. So, in that sense, the final part is to still have other limited. So in those four periods, that’s the reason why I divided it.

Jorge: The sense I get is that “a canon” almost by definition refers to artifacts and works that have stood the test of time. So, it makes sense for recency to exclude items from the canon, right?

Peter: Yeah. And if you evolve your career and you read books or publications, some of them are very important to you and your career. But that doesn’t mean that those books, those publications, will stand the test of time, as you said. There are several books that I considered being part of the canon because they were important for my professional development. But after, let’s say, ten years, nobody actually was referring to the book again. So, it only takes some time or quite some time to determine if something is a seminal work that we base our concepts on, or it was a important work in a specific time, but afterwards nothing happened with it.

Jorge: One item which I believe is in your list in the post-2000 era, which has continuously surprised me in its durability, is Jesse James Garrett’s_ Elements of User Experience_. I am old enough to remember when that first came out, and I’ve seen it be re-discovered and re-engaged by succeeding generations of designers. And every once in a while in Twitter I’ll see someone sharing that diagram and saying, “look at this thing!” Somehow, there are some of these artifacts that keep speaking to people.

Peter: Yeah, and of course the diagram is sort of the most iconical image of, let’s say, in the beginning of the 2000s, concerning user experience. And it keeps coming up and up and up again. And when I’m teaching, it still provides a sort of mental model for first time designers to think about what are the different perspectives on how you can view the web. So, in that respect it’s still valuable for what it was and what it is.

Selection criteria

Jorge: This discussion we’re having brings me back to a question that I had for you, which has to do with the criteria for determining whether something is part of the canon. It sounds to me like part of it has to do with the degree to which the artifact has had an impact, as measured in durability — whether people keep referring to it — and also whether it has served as some kind of scaffolding. You talked about, for example, Ted Nelson and folks of that generation building on the work of Vannevar Bush. I’m sure that people reading this list would have quibbles with some of the things that are in it. Would probably think, “well, it needs more of this. It needs more of that.” Can you speak a bit more to their criteria for selection of items for the canon?

Peter: Yeah, it starts with the title being a canon. So actually it’s my canon. So, it represents my point of view of what I consider important works. And we can have a debate on if something should be in or something should be out. And another thing is of course, it says, a canon of user experience. Now user experience is a term coined, as some of you know, by Norman in ’94, and it resonated and people have, currently, all kinds of associations and ideas with it.

But if you go back to, let’s say, the historical aspects of it, you will find out that influential works come from all kinds of places. We all know that people working in user experience have all kinds of backgrounds. And that means it’s a very interdisciplinary field. So, that means that if I can find a thread of user experience in our community back to let’s say, art, then of course I’ll look at digital art and I come to a work… it’s called Cybernetics and Art. Or, if I think that what is important is, let’s say, information retrieval, I come to things like the paper submitted by Brin and Page. So, it’s a multifaceted and multi-perspective list and it… of course, it’s a tool. It can be debated and we can slowly make explicit what the criteria are.

But, yeah. I did, of course, some historical research and came across all kinds of interesting and important works. So, it’s not completely arbitrary; it’s not completely subjective. But of course every member of our community being in the community for quite some time or being in the community just recently might have some thoughts about it.

Jorge: Personally, reading through it, I found myself in violent agreement with the choices here. So, congratulations on it, because it’s fairly close to the list that I would pick. I’m wondering if you can provide an example of how maybe one of these works has influenced your own work and maybe changed the way that you approach what you do.

Peter: Yeah, it’s the work by Edward Tufte. One of his first publications… it’s the Visual Display of Quantitative Information. In my introduction, I said that I was working as an information designer and this was pre-web. And I was very much aware of the complexity of large amounts of information. The book of Wurman, Information Anxiety, resonates with that. And through the book of Tufte and the work of Tufte, he also published another set of books, but this was his first one. And he showed what a tremendous opportunity information visualization could have of understanding complexity. And I was very much intrigued with the phenomenon of complexity.

So, from that time on, if I am dealing with complex systems or complex problems, I always try to visualize for myself how that complexity can be depicted and how it can help me understand that complexity. Furthermore, of course, people who know the publication know that it is a book in paper technology with outstanding design and outstanding layout and graphics. I would urge everybody to take a hold of it. So, in that sense, it was very instrumental to the way I approach, currently, the work of designing for taming complexity.

Jorge: I think that the Tufte book — the Tufte books, plural — are an excellent example in that they have value in the content they provide, but because they are about clearly communicating information, they also have value as artifacts, per se, as examples of what they’re preaching, because they are clearly conveyed.

Closing

Jorge: As you’ve pointed out in this conversation and you point out in the post itself, this list is very much like a first draft at this and I get the sense that you invite folks to engage in conversation with you to expand it. If that’s the case, how might folks reach out to you? How can they get in touch?

Peter: Well, the best thing to do is go to a page called about.me and slash my name, Peter Bogaards. And that means that you can use that as a starting point to get all kinds of contact details with me and as well, see all the online presence I have, which might also be… except this post of course, be of added value for people in the community. On the bottom of this post, you will find the email list or the email address that you can use to contact me and I’d love to start having conversations with anybody who is interested in extending this corpus.

Jorge: Fantastic, Peter. Thank you so much for your work through the years, but also especially for compiling this list and for sharing it with us today.

Peter: Well, thank you for the compliment and looking forward to receiving all kinds of reaction from the community. Love to hear from everybody!

Jorge: Let’s hope so.