TED’s UX Lead — Aaron Weyenberg

Published:  October 24, 2011
TED’s UX Lead — Aaron Weyenberg

Aaron Weyenberg is the UX lead at TED.com. He was in Sydney speaking at the Web Directions South 2011 conference last week, and took a few minutes to talk with desktop.

You gave a great talk about skeuomorphs here at the conference Aaron. For our readers, what is a skeuomorph, and what are some examples?
Skeuomorphs are nothing new – they’ve been around for hundreds of years, maybe longer. I think they’ve surfaced to the top of people’s minds recently because of the new devices, like the iPhone, that we’re used to using now. The interfaces in those devices are borrowing a lot of inspiration from the physical world. So that’s why the term skeuomorphism is resurfacing in interaction design circles.

A skeuomorph is just a modern object that incorporates design inspiration, design cues and design features from earlier generations of that object. I gave some examples of a light bulb – the electric light [which people kept lighting because they thought it was a] gas lamp. In the 2D touch interface world, these are manifesting themselves in things like wood panelling and leather stitching. Horizontal rules, note paper, rough edges of paper, they’re all skeuomorphic designs.

Why might a designer use a skeuomorph in their design?
To make their app more playful, more welcoming to users, to differentiate themselves from other apps that are doing the same thing or trying to achieve the same kind of goals. And it can range from really pointed goals, all the way doing to just making it look more fun, more inviting.

Some of those skeuomorphic design queues could have negative consequences. The trouble arises when there’s no mind paid to that — when it’s been used just because that’s what the current movement is.

[Fellow Web Directions South speaker and interaction designer] Rahul Sen gave a brilliant talk today which expanded on what I said in a more holistic, big picture way. He picked up where I left off really well.

Rahul referenced you a lot in his talk, particularly when he suggested that we should abandon our obsession of the physical world in search of an authentic, digital experience. What does that mean to you?
If I was to articulate it somewhat differently from Rahul, I’d say that the devices and tools that we use today, to interact with people socially and to solve problems, can have their own visual language. A digitally-inspired, modern digital language that doesn’t depend on things that happen to look familiar, like notepads.

And there’s power in that, and no shame in that. Some examples of this are the OS that’s running on Nokia devices. It’s a really great example of a minimalistic, modern, Bauhaus design; Windows phone, obviously; and several apps that don’t depend on such crutches that skeuomorphics bring to bear.

A poor example that I showed in the talk is a personal fitness app. It had absolutely no affordance at all to what the controls did — almost like links were in the early days of the web. Nowadays, if text is a different colour, people assume that you can click on it. At least there is some affordance there — it might be a different colour, or underlined or bold or something. We know that language works: you don’t have to make buttons look like buttons. Sometimes they can just be text.

But in the world of touch interfaces, since you’re actually interacting with content rather than a control, that’s the difference. In the desktop web, we interact with content through controls — a keyboard input, or a mouse input. But now we’ve crossed over into a world where we’re actually manipulating content. So I think that’s where a lot of this realism has spawned, and where a lot of it began.

So I think there’s a balance that’s still valuable, in terms of offering affordance that looks tactile, like a button, but there’s an upper limit to that, and a lot of apps have clearly crossed over. And in doing so, the returns are diminishing.

An audience member asked you at the end of your talk if you thought all of the skeuomorphs we’ve inherited had a shelf life. You agreed with him. Care to elaborate?
I was glad to see Rahul double down on that! He came up to me after my talk and said, “I really agree with everything you said. I’m going to rework some of my slides because we said some similar stuff.” I was happy to be in symmetry with his thoughts, as he gave a great presentation.

So yeah, I do think they have a shelf life in terms of turning the dial back a little bit. I wouldn’t call it a backlash — it’s more of a maturing of the discipline. We’ve seen technologies like image maps and Flash, which have had some really rippling impacts that have manifested themselves in all the interfaces we use. And because they were new and novel at the time, we looked past the shortcomings of those, and then we matured out of those phases. I think that’s starting to happen now — I think we’re turning the corner. I think the dial is coming back.

But I don’t know if anyone is telling Apple that, because in iOS5, with the leather stitching, it’s clear that they’re not taking the foot off the gas pedal.

So it’s an interesting time to be doing this kind of work. It’s a disruptive time, and it’s exciting. It’s both really fun and really frustrating. There are so many moving parts and so many variables now that we have to account for. It’s an experimental time, and the realism is a part of that experiment. Whether it’s successful or not might take a couple of years to determine.

Your title at TED is UX Lead. Tell me what it’s like to work for an organisation like TED.
Aside from not having to explain where you work — you can just say “I work at TED,” and people get what you do and get what the mission of TED is… probably the main draw for me is that I’m mission aligned with TED’s mission. I want to see earth changing ideas take hold in as many people as possible, in as many languages as possible. There are a lot of opportunities for people in my field in Silicon Valley and San Francisco… there’s a lot of investment money flying around.

If you do what I do, you could get a job in San Francisco tomorrow making a ton of money. But you might be working on an app that really does nothing for many people, or it’s some sort of a plaything. Not to say that they’re not valuable and fun — the social space in San Francisco is obviously successful and exploding, and there’s a lot of innovation happening there. But it doesn’t really move me in the same way that an organisation like TED does. TED is non-profit; they can’t afford to pay salaries that startups in San Francisco can, because they’re not raising millions of dollars every year. They operate on a different type of revenue model.

That actually inspires me too — I don’t want to build things that are flashes in the pan, or the next hot thing. That doesn’t get me up in the morning. Joining TED was a no-brainer for me. It was an easy choice. But what’s more than that — the people at TED, they don’t just hire anyone. They take months and months to hire the right person for the right role. They have requirements that go beyond just skill level and experience. They have requirements like “Are you a nice person?”; “Do you get along with the people here?”; “Do you get what we’re trying to do here?”; “Are you aligned with us?.” Those kind of qualities are really important to me, and that matches up well with TED as an organisation.

And they also provide a lot of softer benefits — the people you meet, the social circles that you’re going to be involved with at TED, a lot of really forward-looking people that come in and out of the office there. And the conference itself is a great opportunity to meet a lot of brilliant minds, the people I look up to and who I want to be around. That’s what it’s like.

I noticed there are no skeuomorphs on the TED website …
Haha, yes the TED website is kind of minimal, I guess. It’s about content, because our content speaks for itself. Like Rahul said earlier: “If your content can’t stand without chrome, how good is the content?” TED’s content obviously doesn’t need help. Not to downplay the design — the design is very clean, very Scandinavian. I like the style of it — another reason I joined!

Any tips for designers who might be working with similar, video-heavy content?
Yeah I do. I attended a talk by Chris Gifford earlier this morning, and he was talking about HTML5 technologies and accessibility. I know that here in Australia the laws are such that any government site needs to be compliant with accessibility requirements, like Section 508 that we have in the US. He offered some great insights into using different captioning technologies, one that he himself had created a polyfill for, and the technologies available in HTML5 for captioning and subtitles are really, really exciting. You can embed a lot of metadata that is time-based, which opens up a whole new range of things that we can do with video.

So I’m really excited about HTML5 video, and I’m looking forward to the demise of Flash video. Not because I don’t like the technologies per se, but it seems like there’s no real standard with it. Everyone makes their own interfaces; some are good and some aren’t so good, so I’m really looking forward to HTML5 video technology. We’re getting there!

Thanks for your time Aaron! I appreciate it.

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