Walking Wikipedias

Experience Design is a constantly changing landscape where many of us get to temporarily step inside the protective bubble of organisations and industries most people only ever read about.

Outdoor portrait of members of an unidentified family standing in front of the chicken coop on an unidentified farm, with the man, the woman holding a cow each by a rope, showing one boy sitting in a cart, with the other boy standing alongside the cart, holding the rope of the goat, probably Christchurch district. Ref: 1/2-184600-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/30119584


Experience Design can be both frazzling and fantastic.

When I occasionally get on a downer about my choice of career I only have to remind myself how I’d find most other jobs boring.

Experience Design is a constantly changing landscape where many of us get to temporarily step inside the protective bubble of organisations and industries most people only ever read about.

As a result the many Experience Designers I know are walking Wikipedias.

We’re constantly gathering valuable knowledge but also wading through a lot of noise. Much of our job is pattern-finding and filtering – making sense of that noise. Like Wikipedia, we edit out the irrelevant stuff.

Our job usually involves understand a problem and designing a user-centred solution for it. But we also seek to understand where the problem fits into the big picture – whether it is a person’s situation, a team dynamic, an organisation or even a whole industry sector.  We need to understand who we are designing the solution for and what happens after that.

An Experience Designer will typically stick their beaks into strategy, architecture, design, development, testing, delivery and, importantly, adoption and evolution. It can be a lot to take in and frequently overwhelming. We are sticklers for information overload.

This takes us to some really interesting places.

Not long ago I thought I would be designing a simple little game but little did I know that within a week I’d have to become a world expert in pollination, including the intricacies of plant reproduction, the macro-level of bee anatomy and along the way discovering that butterflies actually don’t give a toss at all about pollen – turns out – they’re nectar-junkies.

I know that I should probably have been taught this stuff at high school, but somehow my science class was an endless string of disastrous reliever teachers – including one who shouted at me because I insisted on calling Mount Egmont, “Mount Taranaki”. Turns out, I was before my time.

Then there was the time I was designing an interactive infographic of virtual-pipelines which would actually redirect the energy flow of the power grid for a small but densely populated island in South-East Asia. Not quite your nuclear power station control room scenario, but enough to make me nervous that whole suburbs might be plunged into blackness should an operator miss-click and turn the power grid into electric-boogie spaghetti.

I’ve been a vegan for over 20 years but it’s little known that I’m also a gunslinger in dairy production.

For months I designed a fun interactive game where children could feed virtual cows, explore their multitude of stomachs, milk the cows and configure a working milk factory from components. Years later the cowboy theme continued when I was rustled away for six months in the headquarters of one of the biggest dairy producers in the world, redesigning their global intranet. The work involved meeting their staff from across all sorts of divisions and countries, as well as understanding their documentation and how information flowed around the company. By the end we knew more about the running of the company than their CEO. He was greatly amused that I wouldn’t touch the white gold.

On the farming and agriculture front I’ve also become intimate with the tracking of TB (tuberculosis), pig farming malpractice, canned bean supply-chains and the vast quantities of dead meat New Zealand exports to the world – more than enough to feed our own country dozens of times over – unless you’re a vegetarian of course.

Yes, this job takes us to some strange, unexpected and wonderful places.

Twice, actually, three times, I’ve had to get a little bit intimate with the sex industry. The first time was when I worked in television and we were approached to see if our studios could be used to film an adult movie (nope). Years later when the web was young our company built the first e-commerce website in the country to sell numerous strange-looking objects of intimacy. The third time was designing billboards to lure customers in the midst, ahem, of a downturn.

Perhaps somewhat loosely related was a website to help rich American women satisfy their hunger. You see, apparently many of them have a libraries-worth of cook books and don’t know where to start when planning their six-course dinner party. This website allowed them to look up a recipe from their collection and it would then direct them to the (physical) book.

On the topic of rich people, I’ve done my fair dash swimming in money. Unfortunately not my own, but other peoples, having worked on one of New Zealand’s leading online banking websites, online investment portfolios, the share market and a tool to help advisors sell insurance. It hasn’t rubbed-off on me though – money continues to slip through my fingers like water.

Not long ago, my mechanically-challenged brain was forced to get to grips with the economic system when I designed a virtual representation of the Moniac – a complex machine which simulates the economy. Turns out the machine uses a bit of jiggery-pokery, which, as it turns out, is a reflection of the real economy after all.

I’m also a bit of a guru on aluminium smelting – having crawled over and under almost every part of Tiwai Point – donned in a full protective suit and gas mask. Did you know that a single coke can dropped into a vat of super-heated molten aluminium would cause an explosion that would level a square city block? Don’t try that at home!

And this job just keeps getting stranger…

Did you know that the Ministry of Education has a small army of people who walk around with measuring tapes? That the Fire Service has a strict seating hierarchy for their Fire Engines? And that some of the world’s largest and most successful companies still run behind the scenes like it was the 70s, man, shuffling around bits of paper, sticky notes, memos and binders full of women?

It’s mind-boggling what Experience Designers uncover and one thing is for sure… It’s never boring for long!