Focusing the rhizome: 5 guidelines for designing user experience

This article by Julianne Beswick appears in ‘The SoDA Report’, a trend report from the Global Society for Digital Marketing Innovators, and is republished here with permission.

 

Think of a tree: its internal root system sprouts from the ground and delivers nutrients and water to its branches and leaves. For years, this model shaped the way huge brands would traditionally influence consumer behaviour. Here’s some tasty and affordable Colgate – and it only costs a dollar! We were hypnotised. Now, imagine a piece of ginger, its multiplicity of arms growing every which way, or a mangrove, where each visible shoot is actually part of the same, subterranean organism. This complicated biological structure, categorised as a rhizome, is much closer to the communication systems we work with now. Each twisted, snarled stem is effectively an independent bio-communication channel.

Rhizomes hold an eerily close resemblance to media today. However, it was over 30 years ago that Deleuze and Guttari first began discussing this principle in their 1980 book, A Thousand Plateaus. In it, they compare modern modes of expression with the rhizomatic structure. It’s amazing how pertinent this foresight grew over time. Every single aspect of our world has grown in complexity. Today we find ourselves designing for a culture so extremely rhizomatic that it has created a true need for designer’s focus and skill.

Designing with the rhizome’s characteristics in mind

We are continually reminded that capturing consumer attention is problematic. The challenge lies in the fact that our coping mechanism for dealing with this problem remains unclear. In eMarketer’s ‘Time Spent With Media: Consumer Behaviour in the Age of Multitasking’, the challenge is measured in terms of how we consume and interact with content and platforms. For instance, 69% of consumers engage with personal email while watching TV, 57% visit social networks, 32% IM or chat with friends. This is a problem when it comes to design.

How do you make focused decisions or compelling work in this rhizomatic environment? Brands are looking to agencies for guidance. Therefore, as agencies, it is imperative that we develop a clearly defined point of view based on insights into how consumers are likely to interact with the brand and content in this multitasking milieu. While there may be an endless array of possibilities, it is impossible to execute on all of them well, so you need to choose wisely.

Develop a process

Sticking to a set of loose guidelines yields a sense of control. Here are five ways for the project team to simplify and focus:

1. Determine whether to take a multi-pronged approach or to adopt the craft method

It’s a contradiction in terms to promise a product that is highly-crafted as well as all-encompassing. You honestly can’t do both (at least not well), so pick: A or B. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a limited direction. In fact, it’s a relief to unload that kind of pressure because as the scope of a project broadens and as its feature set grows, the more research, design, time and expertise are then required to put out a quality product. And from the consumer’s perspective, the broader the scope of utility, the less one can focus on any one tool set. Smaller, more focused concepts are more nimble, able to receive crafted attention and can be understood more readily by consumers.

2. Embrace uncertainty

Anticipation around the start of a project can materialise as excitement or anxiety. This is the hot mess that produces great work. Embrace uncertainty, do your research and sleep on it. Your subconscious mind will work on a solution and sort things out even when you’re unaware that it’s happening.

3. Establish a point of view

Define it and stand by it because weakness in voice inevitably leads to a weak product. It isn’t hard to do something halfway. In the same way that users consume media with split attention, products are often designed with split attention. This work finds its way into the marketplace, but lacks a strong, focused brand or utility, proving itself to be another unremarkable tangent within the rhizome. Devoting sufficient attention and time to do good work has become a challenge (and a luxury), but it’s worthwhile nonetheless.

4. If you can define a few questions that need answering, use them to establish the borders of your new project

Find your competitors within those walls and determine what’s going to distinguish you from this group.

5. Temper

It feels really good to establish direction, but that should never be the end of ideation. Once your brain has switched into making mode, it’s tempting to let it off the hook. Instead, take continual steps back and be sure you’re happy with the path you’ve chosen.

These words of advice may come across as common, obvious or insignificant, but they help untangle the mess.

In the field

When designing for user experience (admittedly a vague expression), we should be crafting experiences around the complete life cycle of a product (an equally vague expression). So how do we reduce the vagueness to produce truly great work? Projects invariably take unpredictable paths. However, through persistent questioning and a willingness to put a stake in the ground and focus at major milestones, you can begin to craft an informed approach that yields quality products.

 

Julianne Beswick
BY Julianne Beswick ON 28 November 2013
Julianne Beswick is design director of user and interaction design at Phenomblue, a US-based brand experience agency.