Anything But White Picket…


Where does your mind go when you think of the word “fence?”

Unless you’re my friend Fleur, who’s a fan of the romantic sports, you probably lean towards the mental model of “things that stick in the ground and enclose other things” and you would be correct, as fences do just that—they enclose, divide, and/or protect areas for a variety of purposes.

If we can agree to such a definition of a fence, we should be able to agree that fences also define parameters of use, for if one can’t get past the fence, one can’t engage with anything outside (or inside) of its parameters.

Why am I fixated on the definition of a fence?

A good deal of design centers around the intentional definition of parameters, creating experiences that fulfill specific goals.

If that’s a vague concept, think about it in the explicit terms of designing a navigation system:

  • Does the top/down navigation live in a consistent pane in the interface?
  • If it’s located at the top of the screen, how does it behave?
  • Does it expand onRollover or onClick?
  • Does it display horizontally or vertically?
  • Does it employ hover states for greater affordance?
  • How does color and behavior provide affordance and reinforce the brand?
  • Is bottom/up discovery presented through search or contextual modules?

Imagine this prototype—can you envision how such simple parameters might define interactions? Before we get too in the weeds within this imaginary interface, let’s step back even further and consider how we might design a fence in the real world.

  • The placement of corner posts could be determined purely on property lines or through specific requirements based on the needs of the owner.
  • The height of the fence, and its types of rails or wires, could be designed based on security requirements, or based purely on style.

When design attributes are specified, parameters of use spring to life; when usage needs are understood, specifying attributes is much more simple.

An impactful experience is established through the process of reducing the environment from ALL variables to MANY variables with an eye on reaching a FEW variables. Intentional simplification leads to good design.

Specific choices define how, say, a fence can keep sheep grazing within a field; or protect a business in the midst of urban renewal, or surround a house at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Framing up such insights around desired outcomes leads design to ideate solutions choices to reach such outcomes.

Human Centered Design

Interactive design is an iterative process, a constant remodeling based upon the objectives and desires of both the business and the users of a system in play.

Moving from good design to great design requires an effort of reduction to reach an elegant solution, where less is more and the complex takes form in simplistic presentation.

Expanding upon our real-world fence metaphor: let’s say sheep are now grazing behind an elegant, rustic, utilitarian, wire fence with wooden posts. You’ve designed the right experience to meet the particular needs of your customer, and she is ecstatic with the outcomes of 1. her sheep not roaming into traffic 2. an aesthetic that matches her existing ranch and 3. an environmental marker that provides a clear indication of her most southern property line.

Good thing you spoke with her upfront and didn’t rely on what your colleagues imagined she wanted. Don’t pat yourself on the back for long, though, the world changes often, and as people engage with interactive spaces, priorities and needs can shift on a dime.


In this metaphor, now imagine your ecstatic customer telling you that her sheep are going to be racing for cash across a range of individual courses on the property, with the desired outcome of driving increased betting options for the local yokels who also need places to sit, purchase beverages and food, while move about the property safely.

For good measure, you also catch wind that other farmers may be buying into using the property for similar purposes in the near future, but will most likely use more exotic animals—much faster and larger, with different maintenance needs and subtle details pertaining to optimal footing.

Each farmer will eventually be a stakeholder in how the property ultimately needs to function, yet each hold a different degree of influence in the decision making process based on the revenue their animals bring to the overall business.

With multiple priorities and agendas in play, designing for an optimal experience of the overall environment scales up in difficulty. While your primary design principles of simplicity remains steady, the outcomes that you’re driving towards must be refined based on deeper investigations.

One thing is for certain: you can’t possibly satisfy each customer requirement with a singular understanding of a fence. The challenge that lies on the horizon: How might you broker the definition of appropriate usage parameters moving forward?

You’ll need to meet each customer’s explicit needs, but not by making the experience too complicated or by over customizing it so that one customer’s needs negatively impacts the others.

You’ll need to be innovative with your solutions by keeping an eye on the underlying viability and usefulness of the environment that you define while making the proper trade offs to get the job done.

You’ll need to be discrete in your approach to both understand and frame the outcomes that your designs will ultimately serve, or you’ll never reach them.

Tom Sawyer had nothing on the challenge you now face.

This is Design.

Website Powered by