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Exclusive Interview with Adam Greenfield

image 1 Adam Greenfield is an information architect and user experience consultant whose admiration of simplicity only enhances his ability to write deep and thorough articles about culture, design, technology and the field of their intersection. His work experience includes serving as lead information architect for the Tokyo branch of web consultancy agency Razorfish, a rock critic for SPIN magazine, a PSYOP in the US Army, and a coffeehouse owner in West Philadelphia. Adam’s personal website has won numerous awards besides.

WDL: What is your website ""about?

Adam Greenfield: The search for beauty, utility, and balance, wherever they're found in design. And a bully pulpit for my other thoughts and opinions about the world, for whatever that's worth.

WDL: Where did you get the idea for ""?

Adam Greenfield: I don't think there was ever an "idea," per se. I had always done zines, since I was thirteen or fourteen. v-2 just seemed like a logical xtension of that impulse.

WDL: What do you want people to take away from ""?

I want designers to take away the message that they need to be working harder to understand the human beings who will wind up using the things they make.

Adam Greenfield: I guess it depends on what I'm writing about. Sometimes I just want to make sure a viewpoint is heard that might not be otherwise, and these have tended to be some of the more popular pieces on v-2 - for example, an article intended to torpedo the massive hype around Rem Koolhaas' Prada store in New York, or one defending Starbucks and Ikea from what I thought was irresponsible criticism.

Generally speaking, though, I want designers to take away the message that they need to be working harder to understand the human beings who will wind up using the things they make - and users to come away with a sense that they have the right to demand better from the designed artifacts around them.

WDL: Having discussed your website, let's move on to your career. Why do you work as an information architect and user-experience consultant?

Adam Greenfield: I guess it's because I've always been frustrated with how far short digital artifacts fall, when compared to well-designed artifacts in other design fields. To the degree possible, things should just work, and they should work in a manner consistent with respect and consideration for the person using them.

Now, this seems like a common-sense thing to ask, but I've found that it tends not to happen, in the absence of someone speaking forcefully and knowledgeably on the user's behalf throughout the development process. I'm happy if I can be that voice, that advocate.

WDL: Milestones in your current career…

Adam Greenfield: Really, the four most important are the day I first went to work for a dot-com in Oakland in 1999, the day my boss let me change my job title to "information architect" in 2000, the day in 2002 the folks at Razorfish in Tokyo promoted me to head of the IA department...and the day in 2005 I finally decided to forge out on my own.

WDL: Major industry (Web) changes that have affected your life…

What I do isn't a matter of a particular skillset so much as it's a fundamental stance. And for better or worse, the only way I've found to craft that stance, to improve my usefulness to my clients and their users, is to read extremely widely, outside the echo chamber.

Adam Greenfield: There's just no question at all that my life would not look anything like the way it does if it weren't for the "double articulation" of the dot-com boom and bust. The first created a substantial perceived need for the kinds of things I do, and established IA as a high-value-added, highly-remunerative profession; the second swept everyone out of the business who didn't absolutely love doing it.

In a narrower sense, if I hadn't been writing on v-2, I wouldn't have gotten the offer I did to go and work in Japan. And if hadn't gone to Japan, I never would have met my wife, who was in raduate school there at the time. Nor, without v-2, would I have met 90% of the people I now consider my closest and most respected friends. So it really has changed the course of my life.

WDL: Best client? Why?

Adam Greenfield: I generally try not to discuss client business in public, for reasons that I'm sure you can understand. Even to compare them with each other. ; . )

WDL: Why try to teach your clients anything about process and purpose? Why not simply hand them a finished product?

Adam Greenfield: Because that wouldn't be responsible of me, for at least two reasons. One, in terms of my responsibility to myself: I would obviously like repeat engagements with good clients, and to my mind the best way to win that kind of trust is by helping my clients develop their own organic capabilities. There will always be something else I can help them with, and if there isn't - if we've reached the end of the road together and they're still happy - they'll point me at someone else who needs me.

Beyond that, there's my responsibility to my clients. They're paying a premium for my services, and IA or Web design in and of themselves are just commodities they could get from anyone. Presumably they've retained me to gain access to the way I think; simply tossing a deliverable on a table and walking off into the sunset isn't consulting, it's contracting.

I guess I simply choose to take a diametrically opposite approach to the kind of consulting style that counsels keeping a client dependent on you. If you do things that way, I don't believe either party benefits in the end.

WDL: The Elements of Style, Strunk and White's handbook on writing clear and effective prose, seems to follow you everywhere. You mention it often in your interviews. Which website serves as your Strunk and White - or as you may wish to call it, your universal reference material - in the discipline of website design?

Adam Greenfield: Honestly, there isn't one. What I do isn't a matter of a particular skillset so much as it's a fundamental stance. And for better or worse, the only way I've found to craft that stance, to improve my usefulness to my clients and their users, is to read extremely widely, outside the echo chamber. I'd be more sincere if I recommended reading anything but web design sites, unless what you're interested in is acquiring a specific skill.

WDL: Three things you would do to improve Web Design Library…

Adam Greenfield: Well, first off, when I first get there I have no idea what the site is supposed to be, or do for me. That's OK for personal sites, but less so for sites that intend to offer some kind of useful service. So number one would be developing some fairly prominent copy to summarize the site's value proposition to its users, simply, concretely and without jargon.

I would definitely rethink the tree-style primary navigation, which seems like a left-over from the days when it was believed that users "didn't want to click." Subsequent research has demonstrated, to my satisfaction anyway, that users don't mind drilling arbitrarily deeper into a site if they have a clear impression that they're getting closer to the thing they're looking for.

Finally, I'd recommend refocusing the content around an improved understanding of the actual audience and what they want. If what you're interested in is being a resource for working designers, I'm not sure that all of the material here is relevant or is going to be appealing.

WDL: Where can we find you in print?

Adam Greenfield: My book, "Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing," should be out by the end of the year. By all means, keep an eye peeled for it.

WDL: Are you planning any roadshows/IA proselytizing? I mean, we'd like to see a tour schedule.

Adam Greenfield: I'm going to be participating in an event in Bordeaux, France, in July, called the CiNum Digital Civilizations Forum, as one of twelve "designers of the future" invited to share our thoughts on technology and culture with EU and corporate decision-makers. Sometime in the fall I'll be presenting at Design Engaged 2, which will most likely take place either in Barcelona or Helsinki. And I'll be giving a talk on "Everyware" at the East Coast IA Retreat on 9 October. Aside from that, I've cleared my decks for the rest of the year for client work and getting this book shipped.

WDL: Well, that's it. We're certainly glad that you took time out of your busy schedule to talk with our visitors. And we'll take your advice and keep an eye peeled for your book. Thanks!

Exclusive Interview with Adam Greenfield

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