About: Dylan Wilbanks

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Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.

Posts by Dylan Wilbanks:

Telling your story

When I talk to junior designers starting out in their careers, I find they struggle with “story.” They can’t walk from problem to solution and explain how they got there. They’ll get caught up in the little details but miss the big picture. They’ll focus on their individual work while not talking about the team (or vice versa).

Why is that? My theory is that it’s the UX/UI conundrum. UIs are supposed to tell our stories. But they’re also both finality and affordance. They are the final “rendering of intent,” but we’re leaving the story to be completed by the user. So we’re used to “our design,” but we’re not used to the mutual-ness of the story conversation.

And that’s the important part: the conversation, between design and user, between product owner and designer, between organization and customer. Every design is a conversation. But how do those conversations work? As a company, are you in dialogue, or are you lecturing? As a designer, are you engaging in the conversation, or are you frustrated the user can’t finish your sentences?

If design is communication, then it’s natural that the idea of story should be central to all our design work. Story is what binds the scenario to the vision. It’s what binds the design to the code. Without a story, we can overemphasize the tiny details and underemphasize the role those details have in the product.

Here’s a story: I was trying to design a 13-period calendar picker in a product driven by quarters and months. When you get into 13-period calendars, you need to throw away everything you know about divisions of time. (You’d be surprised how ingrained 12 months and 4 quarters are in analytics design.) We needed to give our customers a way to configure a plethora of financial calendar systems that didn’t conform to the standard 4 quarter, January to December systems.

After banging at a lot of different and messy ideas and using the whole team, I was out running out of useful ideas. And then I thought of Mad Libs, and I remembered the Huffduffer signup form.

Huffduffer is an application that let you manage podcasts. Its sign up form is… well, different.

“I would like to use Huffduffer. I want my username to be ___ and I want my password to be ___.”

The signup isn’t a bunch of input boxes. It’s a conversation, constructed like Mad Libs, a childhood game where you fill in the blanks of a story (“I need a noun! A verb! A city!”) and make strange, dadaist tales. And that led me to rethink the setup form as the answer to a question rather than a series of input fields.

I imagined myself in a room with our customers, and I asked them all a question: “How would you describe your organization’s financial calendar?”

“Well, we have a 13-period calendar. Our first day is always the first Monday in January.”

“We’re different. We have a traditional 12-month calendar. But our first month is November.”

“Interesting. We don’t do quarters. We do half-years. But we track our performance weekly.”

With that, I created a mockup that looked like Huffduffer, like Mad Libs:
“Our calendar is (12-month/13-period/4-4-5/4-5-4), and we use (months/quarters/half years) to measure our ongoing performance. The first day of our fiscal year is (July 1/First Tuesday in January/our founder’s birthday).”

Ultimately, after a few iterations with the developers and product managers we fell back towards a form that wasn’t about “completing a sentence” but about “filling in the blanks.” However, the spirit remained. The form phrasing and order followed the original Mad Lib idea, and it’s still a core part of the product setup.

And that’s a story, to me. We had a problem, we worked on a solution, we got results. We had happy customers and we dealt with a very messy piece of configuration in an elegant way. Most of all, we never shyed away from the problem — “I want a system that I can configure to use our financial calendar” — and also never lost sight of the values we had in design — simple, human, understandable.

I tell that story in job interviews. It’s a perfect nugget for explaining how I design — focus on the problem, look broad for inspiration, iterate to a solution, never lose sight of your values.

As a designer, can you tell a similar story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end? One whether you can explain the problem, lay out the objectives, explain what you did (and what the team you were part of did), and illustrate the results (good and bad)?

Every design is a story, a story you’re telling in partnership with your organization and with the user. How are you enabling every person involved to tell their story? How are you hindering them? And most of all, how are you allowing the user to tell their own stories with the tools of the story you give them?

Design is story. Communication is story. Rendering intent, in the end, is nothing more than another expression of the oral-aural tradition our ancestors first used to communicate their ideas.

Tell your story. And help your users tell theirs.

On IA Summit 2017 and Legacy

(I thought about saying something during Five Minute Madness, but so many of these thoughts were still swimming in my head that it would have come out even more disjointed than this piece is. So I did the thing I do — I sat down and wrote it instead, with some assistance from Lin-Manuel Miranda.)

It surprised a lot of people when I said this was my first IA Summit. I’ve been on the industry radar for a decade plus, but the stars just never aligned for me to come.

I was coming to the Summit while working on designing my startup’s first product, and the last month of 60-70 hour weeks had really sucked me dry.

Add in a series of unfortunate interactions in the week, a tiring drive through Seattle everyday gridlock and Vancouver rush hour jams, and my winter blues getting amplified by the drive and the interactions and the overwork.

I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to anyone.

So when you’re mentally fried, incredibly introverted, and are just barely containing yourself from throwing everything in the car and heading back south… and the ever-wonderful Abby Covert drags you out to dinner with wonderful people and tacos… it’s not pretty. You look like an immense jerk as Dan Klyn tries desperately to draw you out. And you spend the rest of the conference trying not to be that person because you feel so guilty for being that guy.

But. Enough of that.

Legacy.

IA Summit this year had a lot of very obvious, public themes revolving around “Designing for Humans.” But I kept picking at this thread the whole time I was there, one of legacy.

I’ve been working on and around the web since last century. At this point, I’m finally old enough and experienced enough that people come to me for advice, even as I’m feeling my own impostor syndrome rise when they ask. As much as I am a minor celebrity in this field, I’m still just someone who will one day be Found Out, a plumber who wandered into a fluid dynamics conference.

But this was the first time that, together, I saw what it meant to me, to those who asked for advice and coaching around portfolios, and to this field as a whole.

I saw two things, contrasting, for the first time: The words and thoughts of those who came before me (like Alan Cooper and the many evocations of Richard Saul Wurman), and the rising generation of highly trained designers and information architects behind me looking for knowledge and guidance through the mentoring and portfolio reviews. (A personal thank you to Kyle Soucy for inviting me to be a portfolio reviewer, though I’m sure it was probably an accident.)

And here I was. For the first time, I was between the two generations. I could see the two shores. The eastern shore, where the sun rises on the backs of the rising generation of UX folk, highly trained and highly eager, who will lead us into the coming decades of digital wonder and fear. And, over there, the western shore, where the giants upon whose shoulders my generation stood to help design and build the internet we know today, are going… and have already gone… into the red sunset.

I am sailing west. The western shore is no longer an idea but a distant landmark edging closer. But the eastern shore is still there, even as it shrinks and fades.

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory:
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

When I was younger, I had all the time, and no time, for heroes. The Zeldmans and the Meyers and the Wodtkes and many, many others were who I wanted to be. But I also didn’t like us lionizing history. We were in a new world, with new technologies, where memes launch overnight and the technology and technique barely survive the day the same. I wanted to be like my heroes, speak with authority, have people listen, hear my story.

As I got older, I came to know my “heroes.” And I learned the honest truth — they were just as scared and fragile as I was. In fact, it started to bother me when I saw a “rock star of UX” who wasn’t authentic. I would not be them. No. Not me.

And now, here, mid-ocean between the shores… I’m still torn. Torn between the need to speak and the need to listen. I don’t think I ever have learned to do either of those correctly. But I try to do better.

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see

The seeds we try to plant in this backlit young generation are the ones we wish we’d known to plant when we were their age: Sustainability. Ethics. Empathy. Diversity.

But we planted the seeds we had, what we knew. Or we let the vines and lianas untended as we pursued money, security, the perfect taxonomy. And now we look at a world wracked by problems of privacy, of security, of “fake news.”

And so we warn them. But do they hear us? Should they even listen? Are we merely the parents chastising their children for smoking while waving a lit cigarette in their hand?

But, perhaps, they will be the ones who save us. After all, we need them to be our saviors, and we trained them up to do so.

These are the seeds we plant. We will never see them at maturity. We will not see the seeds they plant sprout after we are gone.

Now is the time for us, the ones here in the middle of the ocean, to sow. To mentor, to teach, to begin to instill those values we wish we had with us when we were their age. A world adrift in “fake news” and microtargeting needs fixing. The next generation will have many battles to come to fix the messes we leave behind, just as we worked to right the wrongs of those who came before us.

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes

To the generation before us: Thank you. Thank you for being willing to trust us in perfecting what you started. Know that we demand much of you because we demand much of ourselves. We cleaned up some of your messes, but we created our own. But know we appreciate those of you who guided us along the way, in thought, in word, and in your kindnesses. We are coming behind you, and we will see you soon on the western shore.

To the new generation: Be patient with us, but demand much of us. Demand our time, demand our attention, demand our eyes and ears, demand us to speak truth and cut the bullshit. We can help you become what you will become. But know as you board your ships to lead a new generation across the sea, what you become is in your hands alone.

As Washington sings to Hamilton, history has its eyes on you.

See you on the other side.

The true tragedy of the commons

This month is the 25th anniversary of when I walked into the little Duane Physics computer lab and asked for an email account. And with that, I joined the internet.

I discovered the Usenet, MUDs, and coeds at Sweet Briar who would always want to chat with CU students at random times of the night. I met a girlfriend through the Usenet; my future wife knew me from a news group.

I played with Mosaic and built websites, tho it would be a few more years before I built sites professionally. My career, from web design to UX design, is wholly built on what I learned playing with the web in the waning days of my CU career.

And one of the underlying principles of the internet of those days was what I came to call the “libertarian internet.” All traffic was equal, all ideas were equal, and the internet would be the great leveler. It could lay low the powerful and raise up the powerless. It could give voice to the voiceless, and voice to ideas who couldn’t be heard before.

It was an optimistic view, one built on this idea that we had a communications system that could truly disrupt the economic and political powers of this world.

Now, on this side of some devastating elections driven by fake news and deep mistrust of power, it looks too optimistic. We missed something: That all traffic wasn’t equal, that all ideas were not equal. Privilege. Power. Hatred. Cognitive dissonance. Combine those together, add in the network effects the net produces, and of course we ended up with this hate-spewing machine we call the Internet of 2017.

And that’s the tragedy of the commons we’re now facing — not that the world is trampling our parks because it’s free, but that they’re burning the park down because they can and we will let them.

I wish we’d known back then. Simple ban lists weren’t enough. “You own your own words” wasn’t a strong enough statement. We failed to let people own the consequences of the things they made and the horrible ways they could be used.

I find the situation intolerable, but I’m not sure what the route out is. It’s like my feelings on guns. I am not a staunch “melt all the guns” person. What I want is responsibility and safety in gun ownership, one where the power of a gun is respected in the same way we respect the power of an automobile.

With guns and cars, though, responsibility and safety have clear paths. I believe in training, in safety, in carrying insurance, and above all, the clear understanding that irresponsible use has severe consequences in the eyes of the law.

With the internet, though, what are these analogues of responsibility and safety, and how would we even enforce them? I believe in free speech. I also believe that doxxing, swatting, stalking, and hateful trolling are things we should treat in the same way as we treat people behaving recklessly with guns and cars. And this is a contradiction I find hard to reconcile.

And it’s led me to a horrible thought: If the coming end of net neutrality means that those shaping internet traffic can be held responsible for what they pass through their traffic, could net neutrality be… well, not the worst idea ever? I hate that idea. Without neutrality, the web becomes a sanitized and tiered cable service that Verizon and Comcast can make even more money off of. It would mean repression of minority voices.

I don’t want any of that. But if it means I can sue Comcast for getting doxxed… might it be worth it? I shudder thinking about it.

For the first time in my 25 years of internet existence, I don’t feel optimistic about this web thing I helped build. I want us to be better. And I’ll keep fighting for that, speaking truth to power, demanding the best of the web. But for the first time, I know it’s not a given. It’s something we have to fight for.