Another day of stay-cation, another “week of lists” posts about vacations. This time around I thought I would explore the topic of my profession (web architecture and information management) in the context of what can be learned while travelling. Of course, all this depends on travelling with an open mind and being ready to learn from the experience. When I travel I personally try to immerse myself — but that doesn’t always happen how I expect. For example, I’m typing this out on my phone, which brings me right to my first point…
1 = Making Use of Unfamiliar Places and Tools to Do Familiar Things
The one thing travelling is really good at is forcing us to select and limit the quanity of our stuff we bring with us. Thanks ever-improving to protable electronics, this means many of us still bring along our toys to accomplish things like communicating and blogging — while some leave that stuff at home and rely on internet cafes or hotel business centres. But no matter your priorities, it’s likely you’ve left more than a few familiar tools behind. For example, not many folks I know bring their own laundry machines on big trips. Using unfamiliar tools forces us out of our element and gets us in the mindset of user-frustration: chances are you are going to be frustrated being a user of something so familiar yet slightly different. The benefit to web design: getting back that sense of being out of your element, and (maybe) linking it to the idea that users are going to be visitors to your site, not totally familiar with the tools you’ve built.
2 = Getting Lost (and Using Signage to Get Back)
From an interface perspective, street signs and navigation signage are awesome metaphors (both ways) for navigation of real and virtual spaces. It’s one thing to go out into your own (familiar) streets and make use of signs (likely signs you’ve seen most of your life) and try and learn — glean — something about navigation from those signs. It’s entirely another thing to be legitimately lost and have the real experience and fallout knowledge that comes from interfacing with an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar way. The benefit to web design is that — assuming you are thinking about anything beyond finding your hotel back — you might spare some empathy for users navigating your site and what help such concepts as standardization and best-practice design play in shaping the look and feel of both a city and a website.
3 = Spending Unfamiliar Currency
Money is one of those universal tools that you are going to slam up against hard when visiting a foreign country. The world turns on the trade of coins and bills and buying stuff. Then, you travel… And you are spending unfamiliar currency, wondering aloud if that’s a good deal, or doing mental math to calculate exchange rates. There is no avoiding using currency. You’ve got to spend money to eat and sleep. And online, there are certain interactions that can’t be avoided either. The benefit to web design comes from those frustrations, being on the struggling-user end of the perspective, and considering the possibilities of how to simplifiy those neccessary transactions — information instead of money — for users.
4 = Losing your Expert Status at Everything
Believe it or not, you are an expert at something: you are an expert at existing where you live. You know how to find food. You know where to pee. You can probably get around, contact friends, and do the daily stuff that helps you survive. When we travel we surrender that expert status and become novice users of another society or culture. If this does nothing else, it humbles us as we adapt (some better than others) to getting done all those otherwise-normal things that we’re experts at doing back home, but in our vacation location we’re just, well… OK. You might notice that in many “tourist locations” this has been mitigated by simplifying these cultural gaps and easing the transition of visitors. The benefits to web design come from, again, the experienced mindset that — guess what — your users are not all experts at using your site and — guess what — anything you can do to help them feel familiar and comfortable in a strange land is helpful.
5 = Fitting your Life into a Suitcase
What better way to think about prioritization, clutter, and the true necessities of life than to squeeze the bare essentials into a suitcase and pack it around with you on a vacation? In many ways it’s easy to forget about the problems that clutter causes in web design and pack “everything but the kitchen sink” as they say. Clutter makes things hard to find. Clutter reduces the clarity of presented information. Clutter can be just plain ugly. And vacations force us to unclutter, if only for practical reasons and if only for a few days or weeks. The benefit to web design is a mentality of simplicity and minimalism — which is so much more than just a style.