A short and sweet list of the long and dense documents designers need to understand for success.

Office workers handling boxes of mail and paperwork.
Office workers handling boxes of mail and paperwork.
Employees working on large load of relief vouchers in the Department of Finance and Statistics at National Headquarters of the Red Cross. Published in the Red Cross Courier, August 1931, p. 427. Photographer: unknown. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62–101926

It usually goes something like this.

When: any given day.

Who: a friendly engineering project manager.

Ok. Great! I have to drop. Gotta bounce to my next meeting. I’ll get a kick-off on our calendars once the Ops gets the BRD and our FRD is drafted. But let’s not wait for TDD and we’ll sort out the Test Plans and SIT and UAT later. Do you need anything else? Sprint one started yesterday.”

Yes, this short essay is a document about documents — technical documents.


An ageing iPhone has allowed its equally ageing owner to reflect on the evolution of photography and the costs and benefits of a lifelong relationship with the art form.

Illustration of man in nature looking at his empty hand.
Illustration of man in nature looking at his empty hand.
Illustration created at Vector Creator.

The sky was robin-egg blue. Flat and smooth as an unbroken shell. It was an unblemished mid-August moment: cloudless and bright, long and still. Between my toes, I felt the Rocky Mountains, reduced to grains of granite, move with the water between my toes. Downstream forty paces, my young daughters were playing in the river. We were at the downriver end of an island. From both sides of my peripheral vision the water was flowing into my frame of sight, joining together again in a confluence of symmetrical riffles.

My daughters were chasing each other, splashing in waist-deep water, arms raised above their shoulders, flapping their thin arms like delicate wings, reaching skyward for balance and momentum above the pull of the current. They bobbed and giggled above the hot flat horizon, moving together into the center of a balanced frame, like pale young Egrets learning to fly in an ancient river bed— I saw an image that was part Sally Mann, part Mary Ellen Mark, part Sam Abell. …


UX is evolving because the definition of the user is changing. This means the business of design is becoming closer to the business itself.

A group of professional women and men researching in a large government office using typewriters.
A group of professional women and men researching in a large government office using typewriters.
Washington, D.C. OWI (Office of War Information) research workers, May 1943. Photographer: Ann Rosener.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction NumberLC-DIG-fsa-8d28682

They are honest questions. Most of the time.

They are asked by all kinds of people — clients, colleagues, even the competition. But often the questions (sometimes, they feel more like interrogations) are problematic because they deteriorate into tactical interviews.

I am a Creative and Design Director who deals in the world of Customer Experiences and Employee Experiences. Please note the capitalization. Questions on these topics are often reduced to queries like “How did you extend the client’s design library to build new products?” and “How did you prioritize your backlogs and feature requests?” Good questions. But not great ones. …


I built a little house in the woods. The most important lessons it taught me were about what I was trying to escape from.

A small cabin built on a tower with a drawbridge in the woods.
A small cabin built on a tower with a drawbridge in the woods.
The Treehouse

Irony is a clever teacher.

It was meant to be my great escape. I wanted a secret place to hide from modern realities of work and life, and in turn, find myself. By and large, it was a typical escapist narrative. It was to be my own Walden Pond, Twain’s Study, my little own Monk’s House where neither 5G nor Slack could ever ping me.

What I ended up with was more than I expected. Through the process of funding, designing, and building my own cabin in the woods, I ended up with the equivalent of a two-year degree in the hard hammer-knocks of product management and applied design, and maybe a minor in carpentry. …


My daughter’s bare feet on our living room floor.
My daughter’s bare feet on our living room floor.
My daughters.

In the era of Coronavirus, being a parent during shelter in place orders takes on fuller dimensions. I’ve been leaning on my design experience to help rise to the challenge. As a designer-dad, it might just make me a little better at both.

One of two things has probably already happened if you are reading this. For those of you like my design colleagues with no children, you have already rolled your eyes at the title of this essay. I have mocked the sophisticated and professional world of capital D design and User Experience (UX) by comparing it to the messy, sentimental and subjective domestic Art of parenting. Or, parents: you have frowned at what might feel like cold, a capitalist comparison to the deeply personal joys and challenges of child rearing. …


When planning, we often can’t see the forest for the trees. Design teams can be the rangers.

Historic image of forest ranger with map on a mountain overlooking a forested landscape.
Historic image of forest ranger with map on a mountain overlooking a forested landscape.
Forest Service Ranger ca. 1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number LC-DIG-npcc-29465

“I see, you cannot see the wood for the trees.”
– John Heywood, The Proverbs of John Heywood: 1546.

Project plans are a particular species of spreadsheet best suited for very few of Myers-Brigg’s personality types. I am not one of them. A familiar feeling often washes over me as soon as I see a one. If User Experience and Design planning was a game of poker, (the comparison can feel accurate at times) then the project plan would be the tell. The feeling is similar to walking into a room in the middle of someone telling a good story. ‘Wait.” I want to say. “Stop. Go back. …


A short tale of a lone late-night designer-dad shopping trip gone wrong and the challenges designers face in balancing design, technology and the human condition.

Target Retail store
Target Retail store

This is a boring story about interesting things (if you are a designer, or have ever bought anything from any store, ever).

“Are you still doing ok?” asked the woman in a red vest. Her smile was somewhere between sympathy and pity. Under the fluorescent lights it felt more than a little melancholy. Neither of us wanted to be there.

“Still doing fine.” I said and kept pushing my cart among the aisles.

A shower caddy. That was the last item on my long list. I found it in aisle D 24 of the Bath section of a Target store somewhere in the banal sprawl of suburban America. It was 8:30 PM on a weekday and the store was nearly vacant. I balanced my final item atop a tower of accoutrements piled high in my shopping cart and swung it all around, eager to end this lonely shopping excursion. …


Operating between the old world and the new world of work has changed my approach to designing for employees everywhere.

Image for post
Image for post
The Line Waiting for Pay in an Indianapolis Meat Packing House. Aug. 1908. Photographer: Wit. E.N. Clopper. Location: Indianapolis, Indiana. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-04462

There are two immutable forces that need to be reconciled in my daily life. And my daily life is like most everybody else’s: I go to work.

These forces exist in every office, factory floor, boardroom, and spreadsheet I have ever been in or on. One force is a fundamental lever of human behavior, the other is the building blocks of business. These forces each have polarities, stretching and straining across each other in the Cardinal directions. They form the four edges of a picture frame. The picture within it is us: employees, like you and me. Don’t worry, this is only a 10-minute read. …


I made tragedy my teacher, and it expanded my understanding of design’s responsibility.

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Image for post
Photo by Jannes Glas on Unsplash

We don’t talk about planes flying; we talk about them crashing. —Tibor Kalman

I ride on lots of airplanes. In fact, I am sitting on one as I write this. Stacked snugly like a cord of firewood in economy class, with a 15” laptop on a 16” tray table. As a connoisseur of air travel, and a paid professional working through topics of User and Customer Experience Design, the airline industry is both germane and familiar to me. It’s a complex space, with lots of stakeholders and personas. There are external customers: paying ticket holders, and the airlines themselves. There are internal users: mechanics, technicians, ground crews, and gate agents, — not to mention pilots, and attendants. There are also a variety of business stakeholders who all have distinct, dire, and competing needs. …


The role of research in strengthening UX design outcomes requires more than passive research documentation. Active collaboration between designers and researchers won’t give products smaller waistlines or toned biceps, but it can provide effective and empathic user experiences in less time. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

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Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

For different roles, my condition and training and diet does alter. Depending on the role, it will really dictate the type of training I do.

— Dwayne Johnson

User Experience is not confined to digital product design, but that is the corner of the UX field where I participate most. And that part of the pitch does not usually deal with the physical word, in its process or its product. That doesn’t stop me from thinking in physical terms about how I approach the occupation: bone and blood, sweat and tears.

For example, contemporary design and development processes are often measured in fixed units of time, called sprints. These sprints are run consecutively, back to back for the duration of a project as sequential increments of time. This concept and construct has always left the image in my head of repeated laps or repetitions of physical exertion. Sometimes they can even feel this way; Sisyphean on the worst projects, Herculean on the best. As with repeated physical exercise, design can also become leaner, meaner, and more fit, if the right training regimen is in place. …

About

T. Robert Roeth

Creative Director at IBM iX, North America. I travel for work, and write about it while in the air: Economy Class writing on the form and function of business.

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