The Lost UX Guide: Breaking It Down

My name is Thomas Richardson. I’ve been designing and executing experiences for users since the Devonian Period. Here, I’m writing to introduce a series of essays about aspects of our process at UXD Ventures.

Once upon a time, I designed the Internet’s first travel reservations system for a startup called Internet Travel Network. I envisioned and redesigned Cornell University’s web space, including a social organization for the people who power it up. I have designed interfaces for small startups and for Alibaba. I’ve developed concepts for organizations as innovative as San Francisco’s Exploratorium and for enterprises as conservative as 150 year old Western Union. I’ve worked with a lot of great people who have gone on to do many great things, and with some old folks who have their best work ahead.

In 1997, no one could describe what they wanted, what precisely a digital product should do, how a product should behave, or — if they could indicate a direction — what conceptual underpinnings were required to create the product. In fact, these were often seen as details that only a boor would bring up.

Boor at Ballcourt in Monte Alban, 2004.

Since that time and a little before, I focused my attention on new product ideas, the should bes, and the what ifs. It came naturally to me, having begun life as an experimental filmmaker. I had no interest in making Hollywood love stories or action pictures, but I loved playing with the clay of narratives. What drove me was the desire to figure out what made stories, storytelling and the film medium tick.

In fact, that’s how I got my first Web job. Went to the interview, CEO asked, “You want to be a designer? What’s your background?” I said, “Experimental filmmaker.” He said, “Okay, sounds good. When can you start?” But, whether he realized it or not, a background in experimental filmmaking was a great way to study design.

And, when I clicked into designing digital products, I felt the same impulse as I had with film. Before I could communicate through this new medium, I first needed to understand how it created meaning.

I like the idea of steering your computer with a ship’s wheel.

One of the skills I brought with me to digital product design from filmmaking was the break down, a process that comes specifically from feature film scheduling. To determine how to make (and schedule) a movie from a script, one must break down the script into layers of elements, reorganizing them into logical groupings that will allow the film to be made in the most efficient manner possible. It is also a very important way of illustrating the way that a film functions. For a standard feature film, a layer could represent a slice of the production script based on a key role’s responsibilities, like a production designer’s. It could be an indication of all the scenes in which a key actor appears — or appears in a certain costume.

Classical Visual Breakdown from WA/ONDERFILM

As a filmmaker, I trained myself to consider in parallel as many layers as possible. My films were made from old 16mm cans I’d found in junk shops, plastic bags ironed onto clear film, and scenes I’d shot myself. A standard script format didn’t make any sense. Eventually, I merged the form of my scripts with the concept of a breakdown, writing a script to function as a hybrid, and reducing the effort required for me to see the layers.

For example, the layers for my films were broken down by

  • weather and sunlight required
  • source of found footage
  • abstract purpose of a scene
  • surface narrative
  • frames that contained blue objects
  • degree of sharpness of image
  • etc.

Certain layers had more impact on meaning than others, but I was able to inventory and manipulate the elements within a film in order to create a system of meaning for an audience. Later, as I moved into digital product design, I developed an intense awareness that what I had been doing in film was design. Whether the elements were made up of actors or UI objects, the purpose was the same: to enable an audience to use readymade elements as methods of comprehending and interacting with a narrative.

I’ll save my description of how an audience interacts with a narrative — and its relationship to how users interact with an application — for another time.

In this series of several posts I’ll illustrate methods of breaking down a digital product concept into logical parts in order to develop a plan for how to proceed with a design. I think it will be fun. And once I get going, I’ll accept requests and we can go through the process here together.

First up: STEPCUT, the concept of user control. Follow me to get a notification when it arrives.

See more of what I do @ UXD Ventures.