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Other People’s Underpants July 21, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in tools and methods, Uncategorized.

To my sometimes peculiar way of thinking, User Experience documentation is a lot like underpants. You can create an application or website without it, just like you can “go commando” or do your best Jean Harlow impersonation. It’s faster (less to put on), cheaper (less to buy and launder), and there’s a certain “pioneer spirit” that you only get with an unfinished basement. And sometimes there’s a downside…which I won’t bother to describe, because nobody needs to spend the rest of their day thinking about THAT.

True as all that may be, this article isn’t really about underpants, or the risks of going native. It’s about what happens when you inherit someone else’s documentation.

So why does this make me think of underpants?

Recently I inherited a simple site map from someone who was just trying to get ahead of the game, not a UX professional but a smart cookie who did a respectable job of organizing and representing the content and linking strategy. She asked me to look it over, and even though it wasn’t done the way I would have done it, it didn’t really need to be changed much, so I kept my edits minimal.

I didn’t bother to put in a detailed title block.

If something wasn’t aligned to a grid, I left it alone.

And all the while, I felt like I was wearing someone else’s underpants.

At first I thought it might be because I don’t really do site maps that often; most of the work I’ve done over the last two years has either been research or large-scale strategy work.

Maybe I was just a little hurt that someone who wasn’t a UX professional had done a good job, marginalizing the talents of my team.

Of course, it could just be that I have an obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to site maps.

The reality is that it was probably a combination of those things, plus one more. An important one, it turns out, as I reflect on the project and how it evolved.

For me, and many other UX professionals, the documentation we create becomes our medium of expression. The decisions we make about the radius of our corners, the pattern of our dashed lines, the font of our title block, those are neither uniform nor arbitrary. When we use color, we do so thoughtfully. Gradients and fill patterns are pondered, tried, rejected.

The project progressed, and in deference to a tight budget I continued to avoid non-critical changes to the site map. Until today.

At last, the scope of change was significant enough that I could justify a total re-do. It’s been ages since I felt so liberated, and it wasn’t until now that I felt truly connected to the project. Until today, it was someone else’s site; today it became mine.

Rectangles were grouped and aligned. Connection points became uniform. The garish gold was gone, the cross-links were given reduced emphasis, rules were used to convey line breaks. And as the ideas were translated into my visual language, the speed and engagement of my work increased exponentially. The mouse movements became more fluid and accurate. I was “in the zone”.

And I wasn’t wearing anyone else’s underpants.

The moral of the story is this: sometimes you have to take the time to make your work comfortable and personal to free your mind and hit your stride. Don’t let an artificial “efficiency” twist your knickers. Like Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

How about you? Spend any time in someone else’s underpants lately?



1. Robin Palley - July 21, 2010

At first, I was about to comment, “Show off” but then I stopped and thought about it more. For me it’s like learning by copying things off the blackboard back in grade school and later digesting everything people say by taking tons of notes as a newspaper reporter. Taking the raw ingredients and making them my own allow me to “cook with them”…..and therein is the point…Agreed! And enjoy those new knickers!

2. My Stupid Crohn's - July 21, 2010

I love this posting. A very original analogy.

3. Brendan - July 22, 2010

Great post and very true! A polished piece of information design can go a LONG way to creating clarity, and ultimately, approval 🙂

4. Erica - August 5, 2010

I never thought I would say this, but I’m now a firm believer that every day should end with at least one work-related underpants analogy.

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