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A Gaze at the Stars. Interview with Christian Crumlish

Ryan Riddle
By Ryan Riddle on 27th August, 2013 Updated on 10th July, 2019

1. How did you get started in the User Experience Design field? And what would be your advice to newcomers to the field?

I sneaked into the field before they put up all the signs.

I came from publishing, having worked as an editor, author, agent, packager, and publisher. When the web came along, I at first viewed it simply as a great new form of publishing. Because I worked on tech books, I had already formed some opinions about how to improve user interfaces but until I hit the web I lacked any formal process or techniques or avenues for becoming involved in the making of software.

The web democratized all that and gave me a chance to teach myself what we now call information architecture and to build interfaces out of HTML (and later CSS and scripting languages, etc.).

After making my own websites, including a collaborative webzine called Enterzone that ran from 1994 to 1998, I took on a series of roles in Internet consulting companies, including the founder, content manager, content strategist, information architect, and director of strategy. I ended up at Yahoo as an interaction designer, curating the Yahoo design pattern library, then joined the turnaround effort at AOL as a director of consumer experience and later director or product at AIM. Today, I’m product director at a mobile productivity startup, CloudOn.

Along the way, the emerging UX communities of practice, in particular for me the IA Institute and the IA Summit, helped me find my way. My advice to newcomers is to find local organizations and find ways of attending regional, national, and international UX conferences to fast-track your education and to network with some of the best practitioners in the field.

2. What’s the one thing that always works in User Experience Design?

There’s no silver bullet. UX is a magpie discipline that steals shiny ideas freely wherever they are found. The common thread is framing problems from the user’s point of view, which frequently involves turning assumptions on their head or working backward from the desired result to figure out how that could possibly connect with a user’s needs and expectations. For this reason, I am a huge fan of concept modeling (distinct from mental modeling, although that’s also useful), as a way of mapping out related ideas and defining happy user paths.

3. What product, service, thing would you like to redesign and why?

I’d like to redesign the government and in particular the winner-take-all election system predominant in the US. (This is one reason why I am such an enthusiastic supporter of Code for America.)

4. Can design be a source for an important social change? How can we achieve that?

I’m not sure I’d say design can or should be the source for change. I don’t see social change originating from design per se. Design is a tool that can absolutely be applied to the goal of social change. Traditionally, communication design has been a common point of leverage (think about propaganda posters, “loose lips sink ships,” Rosie the Riveter, and so on). In today’s networked world, it looks like experience design, particularly social experience design, can contribute to social change in the way it enables people to connect and may facilitate groups of people taking direct action together. I actually wrote a book about this, after volunteering for the Howard Dean presidential campaign in 2002-2003, called The Power of Many.

5. What’s your latest design inspiration?

Lately I’ve been taking inspiration from nature (never-finished, process-oriented, improvisational within rules, running many experiments simultaneously), from architecture (designing spaces where personal interactions can germinate and take root), and from my ukulele (inviting, charming, easy to get started with, co-creative, supportive of growth and “leveling up,” ergonomically suited for a human body).

Thanks Christian! If you’re wondering what Christian is up to lately:

I am teaching a workshop and giving a talk at WebVisions in Chicago in September:

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