Anything But White Picket…


What do you think of when you hear the word “fence?”

Unless you’re my friend Fleur (she’s a fan of the romantic sports), you probably lean towards the world 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 protect areas and organisms for a variety of purposes. If we can agree to such a broad (yet particular) definition, 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? Well, a good deal of tactical user experience design within authenticated environments is centered around the concept of defining parameters; as experiences that support specific goals rely on the thoughtful crafting of usage parameters that fits the behavioral needs of the user.

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

  • 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 reinforce the brand?
  • How is bottom/up exploration presented?

Before we get too granular within an imaginary interface, let’s step back outside for a moment and think about how we might design a fence in the real world.

  • The placement of a fence’s corner posts could be determined based purely on property lines or relative 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.

One thing is for sure; when these attributes are specified, usage parameters spring to life and an experience has been established through the simple process of reducing the environment from ALL to MANY.

These specific choices define our perception of a fence that can keep sheep grazing within a field; or a fence that protects property in the midst of urban renewal; or a fence that surrounds a house at the end of a cul-de-sac.

User Centered Design

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

So back to one of our fence examples: the sheep are now grazing behind an elegant, rustic, utilitarian, wire fence with wood posts. You’ve designed the perfect experience to meet the needs of your client.

Congratulations, but don’t pat yourself on the back for long.

In the world of business and people engaging with an interactive space, priorities change on a dime; your farmer client is now telling you that his sheep are going to be racing for cash on the property with a wide range of betting options for the local yokels. Subsequently, other farmers are going to be using the property for vaguely similar purposes in the near future.

Each farmer is a stakeholder in how the property operates, yet they each hold a varying say in the decision making process. Multiple priorities and agendas are now in play while designing for the optimal experience of the overall experience of the environment. Your approach to quality design (reduction and elegance) remains, but the output must now be iteratively redefined.

Can you satisfy each of your clients’ requirements with one static, structured, definition of a fence?

An even more difficult challenge now lies on the horizon: How do you broker the creation of appropriate usage parameters moving forward? You need to meet each client’s needs, but not by making “fences” too complicated, or by over customizing the experience to any one client in particular.

You need to be innovative with your solutions, but keep an eye on the underlying viability, usability, and usefulness of the environment.

So how does one iterate an elegant reduction of the addition of user requirements? Of an approach to personalization? Of a brand extension into a new industry?

How, indeed.