“From Print to Pixel” - John-Henry Barac at UX People

 by Martin Belam, 1 December 2011

Last week Kings Place hosted UX People, organised by Zebra People. Here are my notes from one of the sessions...

John-Henry Barac is someone I have worked closely with at the Guardian on projects like our iPhone and other mobile apps, and he has written several thoughtful essays about the app and touchscreen user experience on his blog, so I was really looking forward to hearing him talk at UX People. He was discussing his personal journey from print design to “literally pushing pixels” on touchscreen interfaces.

Print, John-Henry reminded us, has an extraordinary history of hundreds of years, and has had time to develop a vast array of design patterns and design heritage. Due to porgressive revolutions in production methods over time, power over design has moved from the hands of the typesetter to what we now know as “the designer”. When the office first got Macs, he explained, they thought they could try and do all the production on there. Editors at the time resisted it, because a lot of the process, for example checking whether a correction had been made, relied on the tactile experience of feeling whether new chunks of layout had been physically added into the page.

John-Henry showed us some of his print work for the paper, and also talked about the “different reading speeds” supported by the Berliner redesign of the mid-2000s. The paper can be read by scanning the headlines, by just reading side panels, by scanning the “gizmos”, or by reading the articles. The design has to support both the deep-dive immersive activity of reading every word, and the activity of casually picking it up in a waiting room and scanning for something to catch the attention.

The shift to touchscreen was a revelation for him. Design had always been an abstract process, i.e. the output of your work on screen got rendered in a totally different format. Now he was working in a medium which exactly replicated his design process.

Having not come from a technical or digital background, John-Henry compared working with a developer to the relationship with the typesetter of old - where you had to give a detailed specification of what you wanted, and then wait to see what they came back with. John-Henry showed us lots of his deliverables from the project, including some beautiful hand-drawn sketches of how he expected transitions to work. Although at one point in his talk John-Henry Barac said “I don’t speak the language of UX” his sketches suggested otherwise.

When he left the Guardian to go freelance, John-Henry said that he found that “outside the cloistered walls” of the paper there was this whole world of job titles - UX, IxD, IA and so on. He argues that the systemisation and fetishisation of skills hinders making great products. So now his business cards have a blank field where the job title should go, allowing him to be what he needs to be for the job in hand.

Designers need to be passionate about their work, he said. Applications and experience should come from designing for what the user wants to do, not just be based on something that a developer has cooked up, as clever as it might be.

John-Henry also talked about his work on the Situationist app. Well worth downloading, it prompts you to perform actions if a couple of people using the app end up in close proximity to each other. You get to choose which actions you are prepared to do, and they range from staring someone out, giving them a hug, giving them all the money in your left pocket, to rousing revolutionary fervour and storming the nearest TV station.

John-Henry explained that in practice, it didn’t work terribly well. It was actually really hard to track people down in a big public space based on getting one snapshot of them, a vague idea of location, and an exhortation to do something a bit odd in public. Nevertheless, John-Henry said, it is an app that doesn’t work, but people love it. “It is a chuckle in an otherwise dull day” he said.

Situationist was featured in MOMA in their “Talk to me” exhibition. John-Henry explained that when it was built, they had little idea of what success would look like. They actually got an angry email or tweet moaning that it wasn’t any use. John-Henry thought that rather missed the point. Huge amounts of consumers are using the web and mobile apps as part of their daily infrastructure, John-Henry said, and they need to have much more fun.

John-Henry worries that these mobile devices are things that people use every day, but somehow we have “serioused” the fun out of it. He’d like to see apps that rewarded people for play and curiosity, rather than rigorously stripping them of personality by making sure that all interfaces and interactions come from a standard palette that have to be intelligible to every single user the very first time they encounter an app.

A great question at the end asked John-Henry about having made the transition from design for “readers” to designing for “users”. “What is next?” was the question. John-Henry answered “Siri”. He said that learning to use computers gets in the way of what humans are trying to actually do - nobody learns computers for the sake of it, and we don’t walk up to people and type things on each other. It is much more natural to just ask someone for help.


Next I’ll have my notes from Mo Syed’s session of optimising sites by using the art of psychology.

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