Schrödinger’s Prototype

A clever title for some musings about how we get to truth for information spaces

At last Friday’s LA UX Meetup, Dan Klyn talked about Strategy and Structure: Doing it Right and How You’d Know (link points to a deck from earlier in the year that appears to be the same). It was a fun and thought-provoking presentation.

Dan laid out four steps we can use to help design information spaces that are good for people, where the structure reflects stakeholder strategy, and where the work is all based on enough truth. The focus on getting to the truth made me a little uncomfortable. Though I am sometimes a romantic and a melodramatic, I am also a pragmatist. And I think I’m more so in my work than I used to be. When information architects get very abstract or philosophical, I can get impatient and frustrated. Even at work, I sometimes find myself wondering what a colleague is talking about: aren’t we working on a project that has tangible parts that we just need to understand and frame properly? Sometimes we get so caught up in big ideas and intellectual language that we lose sight of the actual problem at hand.

But what really intrigued me about Dan’s four steps, is that they all seemed to be inward facing in the product organization. He targeted the truth to be found inside the client, the stakeholder, the product team. And I feel like that’s really only the first step. Then you have to get to the truth that lives outside the doors with the people who will be using the product. I didn’t have my reaction framed up enough that night to ask Dan during Q&A. I assume he has excellent ways to ensure the truth includes the users, but I didn’t feel it come across in the four steps. It seemed more about finding the truth with the internal team, then using that to build an information space that’s good for people. And that is only part of the picture.

You have to get to the truth that lives outside the doors with the people who will be using the product.

I am fortunate to have worked in several organizations that are aware of the importance of listening to users. So aware, in fact, that we sometimes have to guard against listening too much and too literally. Of course, we always have to be cautious about taking user feedback and ideas too literally, that’s just part of a designer’s job. But if you listen and observe carefully, you can get the kernels of their truth. You probably won’t get the deep down truth all at once. For that, I think you’ll have to get into prototyping and iterating, probably even releasing.

Dan cautioned us not to get into UI too soon. That is powerful advice. We really do need to spend time exploring the client’s request, the question, the problem. We do need to find the truth, before we start solving things. And, like Dan, I love using models — goofy sketches, concept maps, journey maps — to embody that first part of the journey and guide the work that follows. But I also think there’s real value in getting a prototype in people’s hands: that’s when you start getting real feedback about how this will meet the need. We know that people are bad at predicting their own behavior (see UX Myth #21.) Observing real behavior is much more accurate in evaluating your design.

Dan cautioned us not to get into UI too soon. That is powerful advice.

In fact, following Dan’s lead and looking to physical architecture, we have seen some interesting attempts to prototype and evaluate physical architecture with the users. Architects and urban planners are going beyond dumb models (e.g., conceptual models or low-fidelity prototypes) to relatively smart models: Seattle’s First Hill prototype parks, Apple Store (in the early days it’s not clear if the prototype was only seen by internals; more recently they did a public prototype), and Walmart’s Urban 90 store.

So getting to the point where you can watch people use your design is an important step in determining what the truth is. And you’ll be getting to the user’s truth — actually understanding if you designed an information space that’s good for people.

I recommend both: Avoid UI as long as possible, but embrace it as soon as you can. Schrödinger’s prototype, anyone?


Thank you, Dan Klyn, for the thoughtful and challenging presentation. It really got me thinking. And it got me writing, which I haven’t done for way too long. In fact, there was so much to chew on in Dan’s presentation, that I am already incubating another column.