Protecting Idiosyncratic Expertise in Interaction Design

Session Title

Protecting Idiosyncratic Expertise in Interaction Design


Dan Willis, Sapient

Session Type: Presentation

It’s nice to say that every user is unique, but what if the success of your interaction design absolutely depends on it?
A decade of battling both an overburdened, unreliable application and disparate, antiquated data systems have converted the analysts at a busy federal agency into nimble athletes capable of skillfully ducking and dodging myriad workarounds and technical peccadilloes. The best technicians find their own ways through the data so one of the major challenges in replacing the legacy software is leveraging some aspects of the users’ idiosyncratic expertise while designing interactions that replace others. How can you tell the difference between useful and counterproductive expertise? How do you create interaction design that is consistent, but flexible at the same time? This presentation will explore lessons learned from this fascinating project and offer guidance for anyone replacing a complex system with a usable, user-centric solution.


Dan Willis is one big bucket of idiosyncratic expertise after more than 20 years of designing things that human beings use. Originally a visual journalist for print newspapers and magazines, Willis moved online very soon after the birth of the commercial Web. He was’s first Director of User Experience and later held the same post at PBS Interactive. He is currently a consultant for Sapient’s Government Services team where he has worked for the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. He is also the creator of, a resource for user experience professionals.


  1. Posted September 17, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    “depends on it” – what it? That every user is unique?

    So it’s a case study of moving from legacy systems to new simpler system focusing on what user knowledge is really “how well they hack” versus what they really need to know… right?

  2. Posted September 17, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    I am fascinated by this case study as Dan has presented it. It sounds as though increasingly arcane techniques and knowledge are required to successfully navigate the strata of complex systems in the project described. Knowing Dan, it will be presented with the dry wit and good humour he is known for.

  3. Posted September 20, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Liv: Yup, what you said plus what Kaleem said. We’re simplifying the system for the user at the same time we’re actually relying on arcane techniques and knowledge MORE. It’s a pretty unique challenge which I hope will make it an interesting case study, but I think it’ll also have value for more traditional projects.

  4. Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Dan – this sounds like a case study people could learn some great stuff from. I’m not sure the main point is coming through crystal clear in your description, though. Maybe lead with the main point, then get into the more creative stage-setting? And make sure you’re spelling out the concrete benefits or “new stuff” people should walk away with after the talk. (Those of us who have seen you present know you’ll be engaging and lead us to the point in an interesting way — but others may not know that yet :-)

  5. Posted October 1, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I love real-life, lessons learned. One thing I’ve always found particularly challenging with replacing old systems is how much to keep of the old way to leverage existing expertise and how much to try new, seemingly better ways. Hopefully you have some good insights on how to discern this.