IA Summit: Inspiration From the Edge

I’ve often believed that the best designers don’t get their ideas and inspiration from the place they work. As a designer that works in the social web space, I do look at a large number of new sites that come through the pipeline for inspiration. However, I also am a big advocate of experimenting with things that are seemingly unrelated and trying to connect those experiences to my work on the web.

Stephen Anderson clearly has similar philosophies and this year at the IA Summit, he discusses some of the inspiration he’s gathered from games, cars, consoles, phones and more.

Continuing the Inspiration

Before I go into the notes I took, I’d first like to mention that the first think I thought when Stephen was presenting was, “he has the same hobby as I do.” I knew that we needed to share links with each other but even better would be for us to share links with everyone. So I created a Twitter account called Inspiring, where Stephen, Coley, Patrick Haney (who runs a web inspiration Flickr set) and I will post inspiring, innovative or beautiful artifacts. Do subscribe and check it out.

Grouptweet: Inspiring

The Presentation

Stephen begins by discussing some of the objects he’s tried to convince his family he needs: the iPhone, the Nintendo Wii and the Toyota Prius. He’s succeeded in getting the iPhone thus far but he’s hoping his rationale of needing these items for research and inspiration will eventually fly (I also employ similar tactics when discussing World of Warcraft, but I actually do believe it’s one of the most immersive experiences today and as such, deserves to be studied – or so I shall claim).

Taking the iPhone as an example, Stephen asks how the iPhone has impacted web design. This question is interesting because the iPhone is undeniably innovative for mobile phone interfaces, but has it inspired changes in other medium? As it so happens, the iPhone has inspired such changes as the on/off controls in jQuery’s checkbox as well as interfaces such as Muxtape or Grooveshark which have iPhone-like interfaces for non-iPhone usage.

Stop Default Thinking

In an example which hit quite close to home, he asked where people would get inspiration from for redesigning an airline site. As one who has been involved with both British Airways and Cathay Pacific, I was feeling rather sheepish when I recognized that I fell into the trap of only looking at competitor sites for ideas and reference. As a contrast to the ubiquitous interfaces that adorn all the travel sites, he showed Wundrbar, a natural language flight search engine.

To further prove his point, he quoted a Forrester Research paper:

… look beyond immediate industry rivals for innovative design ideas. Why? Frankly, your competitors may be getting it wrong. But, more importantly, your customers visit Web sites outside of your industry, which their raises expectations about the types of experiences the Web can provide, expectations that remain intact when they come to your site.

With that, Stephen demands that we should all stop “default thinking” in a number of ways. First, to stop looking only within our industry or even medium and second, to think beyond what we traditionally think is our toolbox of drop downs, radio buttons, etc.

Anything is Possible

Just to get things straightened out, Stephen discusses how there are a great deal of hardware and software changes that have made many exciting things possible. Technologies such as touch screens, gesture interfaces, lightweight desktop applications, etc. are enabling much more. Further, Stephen claims that natural behaviours are better than learned behaviours, unless the learned behaviour greatly increases satisfaction or performance (e.g., QuickSilver).

He uses a Willy Wonka quote to illustrate the ultimate point, but I’ll paraphrase with a quote from Jonathan Trevor, the engineer behind the Pipes editor, when we were working on the project:

It isn’t, “can it be done?”. Anything is possible. It’s a question of, “how hard is it?”

Hiding Data Until It’s Needed

Although the examples provided by Stephen are set in the context of his projects, I’ll simply detail some of the sources he provide as inspiration and how they might be applied. These examples discuss how one can rein in a large amount of data and navigation to a manageable interface.

The XO Laptop utilizes the Sugar Interface which contains a frame with contextual actions. This frame, however, does not appear until the cursor is close to the edge of the screen and thus, stays nicely hidden until needed. Stephen applies this to the web by hiding information until needed.

The Wii, Club Penguin, iPhone and Quicksilver all employ what is called a “Hub & Spoke” model of navigation. Rather than illustrating the entire navigation, or going with traditional primary/secondary navigation, these interfaces have a hub which you return to before navigating to another top level action (e.g., the home buttons on the Wii and iPhone). This model can be easily applied to websites in a similar fashion to reduce clutter.

Games and advanced desktop tool such as Adobe products have often used panes and customizable interfaces to deal with a range of user ability. This level of customization and the breaking apart of panes through lightweight desktop clients or layers on top of a page can achieve similar effects.

Other interfaces discussed with regards to hiding data include Songza, which uses a radial menu, Picnik, which hides its navigation when in the context of a tool and the iPhone’s Mobile Safari tab structure which doesn’t display the tabs at al times and sacrifices clicks for screen real estate.

Communicating Content and Context

To illustrate some examples of visual interfaces that convey content and context in a clear and concise manner, Stephen showed Aaron Jasinski’s portfolio, Disco.app’s simplistic CD burning tool, Get Satisfaction’s clear indicators of mood through smileys, and Microsoft Popfly’s phyiscal representation of data objects as boxes.

Finally, Stephen wrapped up with a number of very visually powerful interfaces including Piclens (which I recommend and use), Jing, Schematic’s portfolio and the tag cloud from CookThink.


  1. Barce · 16 Apr 08

    What a great idea: to create a twitter user called inspiring. I liked the 1st grouptweet a lot and so I favorited it.

    “..these interfaces have a hub which you return to before navigating to another top level action…”

    Bizdev will love the extra page views from a hub & spoke navigation, too.

  2. Jeff Parks · 11 Jul 08

    I thought your readers might be interested in the audio from Stephen’s presentation at the IA Summit.

    You can find all of the presentations here:

    http://boxesandarrows.com/view/ia-summit-2008-day-1 (Stephen’s talk is second from the bottom of the page)


    You can subscribe to the Boxes and Arrows Podcast in iTunes as well, just click on this link, http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=275459507, to subscribe in the iTunes podcast directory.