Nic Price: "Using analogy in the digital design process" at London IA

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 23 November 2010
"I think it is really important that companies provide really good workplaces, and that extends into the digital part. Making stuff that people can use, and tools that they can use to help them in their daily jobs" - Nic Price

At our last London IA evening, Giles Colborne talked about his advice on writing a book, and I've already blogged my notes on that session. The other talk in The Sense Loft that evening was from my good friend, and ex-BBC colleague Nic Price, who used to work on and run the BBC's intranet site Gateway

The BBC's intranet - Gateway

Screenshot of the BBC's intranet site in the early 2000s when I worked there. Featuring K9, you'll notice.

Nic has what he described as the slightly unfashionable opinion that intranets are not something you have because "everybody has one", but that they should be the digital representation of your workplace. And if you want happy and productive workers, then you need to provide a working environment that is easy and enjoyable to use, and helps people with their work.

He has found that relating stories and using analogy has been an effective tool in getting intranet work done. He started off his London IA talk with an anecdote about improving the co-ordination and performance of an operating theatre team by taking them to see a NASCAR pit team in action. Although the outcome and focus is different, the analogy of precision and racing against the clock is obvious. He said that just relaying an appropriate story to someone over a coffee gets people talking and thinking about a problem from a fresh angle.

He showed a great slide with a massive bridge bisecting some otherwise beautiful and undisturbed countryside. He likened it to the moment that someone says: "It's all going to be ok, we've invested in some new technology". In his case he was talking about the arrival of a monolithic SharePoint installation to unify some 400-or-so departmental intranet sites within the BBC, but he could just have easily been talking about any major technical migration project.

At the time that Nic was facing running this transformation, the South Bank Centre on the River Thames was undergoing a massive refurbishment, and Nic found that he could take a lot of inspiration for the digital work from what was going on the physical space. During his talk he outlined some of the key analogies - that the place remained open for business even though certain areas of it were shut, that wayfinding and signposting through the new development was enhanced, that they consulted widely and displayed models of where they were going for everybody to see, and that they used iterations to reach their final goal.

And finally...

I enjoyed Nic's talk a lot, and I managed to bite my tongue and not interject that by far the most important analogy ever to feature the South Bank Centre was in Doctor Who in 1973, when it stood in for a penal colony on the Moon during Jon Pertwee story "Frontier in space".

And if you were at all concerned that Nic's analogies were not analogies at all, then I should point out he did start his talk with a screenshot of XKCD #762.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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