0. Introduction: Designers Naked

by John Armitage

This book is about visual analytics for broad-based consumption, and is as well a primer on ambitious, design-led innovation in large, complex organizations. It is primarily intended for those in the software industry working on products that call for conveying quantitative information to audiences in both workplace and personal contexts. This group would include the roles of designer, product manager, developer, software architect, engineering manager, executive, and those studying for these roles. It is also a large-scale innovation case study, intended to be relevant to any role in software, high tech in general, and other industries involved in product development. Finally, I tried to make it accessible to anyone interested in understanding how quantitative concepts can be relevant in their lives. It is not about technology, but about what technology enables. It is not an artisanal design showcase, but rather an exposition of logical problem-solving, a manual for how numbers can become relevant on an automated, industrial scale while remaining appealing and engaging to individuals.

My intent with this book is to share a body of design patterns, examples, and the methods for using and implementing them. The book has two main themes. The first is about new opportunities in the field of visual analytics, why they are now possible, and examples from the leading edge of the effort to bring numbers to everyday life. The other is about the nature of innovative product development in software organizations, in particular the challenges and tactics for inventing, representing, communicating, and evangelizing new ideas that demand changes to existing products and power structures.

The approach I take is that designs can only be fully appreciated through a thorough understanding of the circumstances surrounding their creation – what they are intended to accomplish, the prevailing constraints, and the people and tools involved. I typically learn more from discussing the how and why than the what, so alongside the work examples, I provide a process analysis to better enable others to repeat our successes.

The book’s core is an exposition of visual analytic product design work completed between 2010 and 2014 for enterprise software provider SAP. Called Project LAVA, this work evolved into a sweeping design language, now gradually being adopted across the company’s diverse product lines. LAVA began as a design-led investigation into how the quantitative information used in daily business operations, and increasingly in our personal lives, could be better presented and manipulated – or consumed – via digital display screens. In this regard, the focus was on factors related to widespread use of visual analytics, although the work is also relevant to the more complex and specialized applications used by statistical analysts and data scientists. LAVA’s innovations and proposals are quite fundamental, and widely applicable to most visual analytic use cases.

LAVA is intended to bring base-level statistical thought to a wider audience than was previously possible. I argue that the consumption experience, in particular the form in which quantitative content is presented to users, is now the most powerful variable in achieving successful content understanding and product success with customers and workplace users. While other aspects of the delivery ecosystem have advanced dramatically, analytic presentation formats are still based upon obsolete, print-based chart and expository conventions that inhibit the potential of the digital medium. The LAVA project enabled us to apply the best practices of current experts such as Richard Saul Wurman, Edward Tufte, Ben Shneiderman, and Stephen Few to the new demands and opportunities of 21st century technologies and markets. Increased processing power, broadband connectivity, rich animated front-end displays, mobile access, social collaboration, new data accessibility, the accelerating pace of change, and growing quantitative literacy are rapidly changing our relationship to numbers.

The effort to discover, validate, evangelize, and execute on these fundamentally new and, yes, disruptive ideas in a large and powerful, yet conservative, company like SAP provides the associated design innovation case study content. LAVA was a chance to begin from scratch to design visual analytic forms, conventions, and environments to be effective and coherent across various screen sizes and interaction modes. It needed to be simple enough for beginners but scalable to expert sophistication, applicable to any vertical market or horizontal business function, be ultra-low cost to adopt and maintain, robust and flexible enough to support collaboration and social media integration, and able to systematically evolve with contextual growth or change, with minimal disruption. The book presents our UX product design solutions to these requirements in great detail.

Design examples lose much of their relevance if presented without the context of how and why they were created, or how and why real people use them. To provide context and rationale for the LAVA designs, the book provides a snapshot of the current state of visual analytics, including a brief history of the discipline, assessment of the current technologies and trends, and a prediction of where the industry is moving and what will be successful in the future. It also includes a narrative of the market, organizational, technical, political, and process backdrop for the design work. I also summarize my professional background to provide context for how and why I came to be at SAP doing this work. This is primarily to inform and guide designers and other professionals, to show how particular interests, experiences, skills, and influences led to this specialization. In this sense, the book is bit of a personal and organizational history, in the service of informing the work and this particular design role.

While this innovation and process narrative was not a part of my initial scope, I later felt it was important to provide this context. During my college studies and early graphic design career, design showcase magazines and award publications provided an endless supply of beautiful and clever logos, ads, annual reports, and brochures that, while beautiful, reflected no evidence of practical success or other relevant context. There was no discussion of whether these artifacts achieved their communication goals, respected constraints of cost or timing, or satisfied their clients or audiences. The publications served as industry pornography – dramatic, indulgent, scripted pleasure with little rigor or sustainable lessons for how or why the work happened. Although some publications provided instructional content, it was limited to production techniques versus the thought process or the business and social context of the work. Design annuals were nice coffee-table books and idea references, but in fact were just fashion showcases that served as designer and design industry propaganda. They provided no guidance on problem-solving – the problem context, process, and results – the aspects of design practice that interest me the most.

Advertising is of course quite sophisticated in its presumption and manipulation of individual and market perception, but is more about creating problems than solving them.

Until the disruptions of multimedia and the Internet, the graphic design avant garde had long been on a rudderless course toward the provocative self-indulgence of typography — distressed to the illegible for aesthetic effect — and gratuitously shocking imagery, personified by publications like Colors, Émigré, and Ray Gun. For a poster promoting a 1999 lecture, Stefan Sagmeister famously had the poster text carved into his own skin with a razor blade. A photo of his mutilated torso became the poster. Celebrity designers April Greiman and Tucker Viemeister had also resorted to appearing naked for design industry causes.

Sagmeister’s self-mutilation, hardly a sustainable tactic, helped confirm my theory that modern design’s fashion cycle mirrors that of art’s avant-garde, whose expressive experiments consistently trickle down into popular culture, following a roughly 30-year delay.

Figure 0.1: Does it Make Sense? (Design Quarterly # 133) 1986, by April Greiman

Figure 0.2: Poster for Detroit AIGA Event, 1999, by Stefan Sagmeister.

1920s Bauhaus modernism surfaced in 1950s Swiss graphic design. The1950s action painting of Jackson Pollack was revived in the printed drips and squiggles of the 1980s. Shamanistic animal figures of sticks and twigs from the early ‘70s appeared in Pottery Barn by the turn of the century. As for self-mutilation making its way into pop culture, look to the work of Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and other artists from the early 1970s. Reacting against the prevailing cold of the minimalist art movement, their art was intensely personal, physical, and event-focused. Chris Burden, the most famous artist of the movement and noted for having himself ritually shot in the arm with a rifle bullet, happened to die the week I was writing this. Why all the tattoos and piercings we see today? It’s the echo of artistic R&D from a previous generation.

The American Institute of Graphic Artists, or AIGA, participated in the love fest of design celebrity into the early 2000s, when Clement Mok began distributing his “little red books” of design thinking rules and principles, and the theme for 2003’s annual AIGA conference in Vancouver, BC was environmental sustainability and its implications for designers. In an odd guilt trip, the conference discussed how, based on their industry influence and problem-solving ethic, graphic designers could reduce the use of wasteful or harmful materials and try to enable more responsible industry practices. Paradoxically, at the close of the conference, celebrity designer Woody Pirtle was awarded AIGA’s top award, based largely on a career of extravagantly-produced promotional design work for wealthy Texas energy and real estate clients, often produced with non-recyclable gloss-coated papers and toxic inks. In his closing remarks, fellow celebrity and AIGA officer Michael Vanderbyl apologized for the conference’s depressing and inconvenient theme, promising to never let it happen again.

While riding this expression treadmill is an inevitable and important part of being a graphic designer, for me it began to lack significance. Thankfully, by 2003 I was well into my career as a software product designer. Fancy graphic design, fashion, self-mutilation, etc. is all well and good, but as a career option it had become less and less interesting to me. Although an art major in college, I had lacked the drive and inspiration to spontaneously create original, expressive artwork, so I was attracted to the design disciplines, where the goals and message are provided by project sponsors for articulation and production. As a professional, I was drawn more toward solving problems of visual logic and organization than those of emotional expression. The role of information designer / information architect / interaction designer conveniently combined the cognitive and utility rigors of traditional product design with the word-and-image communication craft of graphic design. Part of what made it so rewarding was the inherent teamwork necessary, and the ability to see ideas be built and used by people in tests, trials, and releases, and then either succeed or fail based on their merits. The use of digital technology as a delivery and presentation medium, versus as a mere production tool, represented a new frontier. There were so many fundamental problems to solve. LAVA is merely another example of design responding to these emerging capabilities.

This book is how I’ve chosen to expose my work, my process, and myself, for the benefit of others. Although organized to be read in the chapter order, the content varies between the very general and very specific. It jumps from general historical topics to personal use cases to detailed design and technical descriptions to general design process discussions to specific events and people surrounding LAVA’s development. I go off on many tangents. Some of it may be either too general or too detailed for some readers. In the spirit of providing rich context for my arguments, I took the approach of putting in more rather than less. Given that my goal is to take a geeky subject and make the case for its wider understanding and application in day to day life, the tangents include personal anecdotes as well as popular culture and historical references from outside the analytics field. You may care only about the context and process versus the detailed designs and technical content, or vice-versa. Regardless, a variety of influences, and their relevance, is included.

A key attribute of UX designers is empathy for the users of their products. To maintain this, it helps to spend significant time in “the real world”, not only through formal research and testing among product users, but by actually participating in a diverse variety of experiences and adventures in one’s personal life. A key value that designers can bring to a team of devoted specialists, especially in the role of consultant, is a unique, “beginners mind” perspective to a problem. Revelations about one’s own discipline often come from exposure to seemingly unrelated topics. Analogies using commonly understood phenomena are a powerful way to convey elusive points.

Although the book’s content ties together in a loose narrative, skipping sections should not cause confusion. I do however, in perhaps an inevitable, unenviable influence from years in the tech industry, introduce and repeat many acronyms. I list all of them in the glossary for your reference.

Finally, the book’s design is intended for both printed and digital distribution via PDF format, and thus approximates the ideal layout for both. While some printed images may be too small to see all details, the digital version enables zooming. The hyperlinks printed here are live in the PDF. At the end of some chapters are links to the book’s associated Website where you can access the referenced videos, narrative files, prototype demos, and images.

In the book I reference a number of contributors and collaborators involved in LAVA’s design. Here they are:

Alys Longworth, Andrew Murray, Anita Gibbings, Benjamin Kayser, Christophe Favart, Christophe Viau, Cindrella Samuel, Clare Xie, Dan Rosenberg, Edward Guttman, Felix Schoettle, Fred Samson, Gang Tao, Geff Gilligan, Grant Eaton,
Helen Poitevin,
Jason Rose,
Joerg Beringer, Julian Gosper,
Jurgen Habermeier,
Kai Willenborg, Kayhan Atesci,
Keith Mascheroni, Lars Schubert, Mandana Samii, Matt Lloyd, Michael Arent,
Nadin Eberlein,
Saurabh Abhyankar, Steve Kopp, Susan Lam, Viswanathan Ramakrishnan.

1.1 References