User Experience Highs and Lows

In another great interview by Jeff Parks, Dorian Taylor mentioned Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn. Dorian brought up the concept of fast and slow shearing layers, explained in Brand’s book. The layers convey how a building is comprised of different layers—from Site to Structure to Skin to Stuff—that change at different rates and operate on different timescales. Taylor mentioned how this concept also relates to different aspects of developing a user experience. (Arguably, the layers may also map roughly to Jesse James Garrett’s ‘Elements of the User Experience’.)

I read Brand’s book a few years ago, and feel there is another concept describes in it that also relates to user experience work: that of Low Road vs. High Road design.

I previously brought this up in a discussion around an A List Apart article a couple years ago. The discussion was related more specifically to web design, but I think it’s also useful to think of it in other contexts.

To start off, it’s something different from the moral connotation of ‘taking the high/low road’. In Brand’s book it speaks to the adaptability of a building. ‘Low Road’ doesn’t mean ‘low quality’ or ‘low standards’, but concerns approaches that allow for changes to be made easily as a building or system adapts to different uses and contexts.

I mentioned in the A List Apart discussion that we may want to aim more for Low Road methods in design. Rather than building up a hard-to-modify ‘grand edifice’ of custom technologies, regulations, and heavy overhead, we can instead build in flexibility and adaptability into a design by using standards-based approaches, modularization, along with a mix of irreverent creativity.

Taking a High Road approach isn’t bad in itself, though. Although High Road design leads to constraints that get in the way of change, it can lead to deeper meaning and appreciation with an experience. But this means a lot of time and commitment is required, often more than owners are willing to invest, to keep a product or experience relevant.

There is a place for both High Road and Low Road in the big picture of experience design, but we should keep aware of which road we are taking and when. To me, if one’s working with High Road approaches, they should be focusing on building permanence and reverence into the culture and vision behind an experience (yet avoid establishing organizational dogma… a sometimes tricky balance). When working more on the side of the experience close to the tangible end product, the easier-to-change Low Road is generally the way to go.

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  1. Dorian Taylor’s avatar

    Thanks for the writeup, Murray!

    I had a similar but slightly different interpretation of low road. Mine was when the materials and environment are so dirt cheap that you don’t care about trashing them at some point in your creative process. For instance, I used to be reluctant to sketch anything in my $20 Moleskine so I switched to loose leaf paper for $5 a ream and found myself drawing way more and taking way more notes.

    Cheers!