Billy Hollis Speaks! Unlocking the Invisible Cage

Billy Hollis as John Keating

Day one of TechEd was a bit light for the developers in the crowd. One of the stalwarts of TechEd speaking is Billy Hollis and he’s here in 2012 with two sessions. I went to his first #Creating User Experiences: Unlocking the Invisible Cage#. Billy was an inspiration to me last year at TechEd 2011 and convinced me to get off my chair and start thinking about design myself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it. In fact, the sketchnotes I post to this blog can be traced to what I learned in last year’s session. Needless to say, he made an impact.

The “Invisible Cage” refers to animals who are kept in cages all their lives and the curious result when you remove their cage – they continue to stalk the perimeter of where the cage was. Developers no longer have many of the constraints that once ruled our lives (from a design perspective) and yet we continue to fill our software with all the same rectangles that used to bind us. Plus, I’m always a fan of someone who runs Halo and uses it as an example of good interaction design.

A big takeaway is when he said that we (developers) are not our users. Developers, much like airline pilots, can handle a higher cognitive load and thus can deal with more crammed into small spaces. You can easily overload your users by such pixel cramming and should avoid it; if anything to keep our users’ blood pressure down.


One thing I don’t like about Billy’s talks is that he doesn’t use PowerPoint, but not for the reason you think. I don’t like PowerPoint either, but at a place like TechEd, when you need to decide among many sessions, having the slides posted online helps you decide. Since Billy doesn’t use PowerPoint, his slides are never online. Thus, I’m unable to decide whether I should see his talk. In this case, much of what he presented duplicated last year’s content. Had I known, I probably would have skipped (even while recommending it to anyone who hadn’t seen it yet). PowerPoint is the baseline that all Billy’s users (TechEd attendees) expect, and by not using that same common ground, a bit of a panic sets in not knowing what decision to make.

Also, Billy shows off an app written a few years ago called Staff Lynx. I understand that he’s using it to display design principles, but it seems dated. I’ve seen it a couple of years now and what I’d really like to see is what he would suggest a Windows 8 Metro app look like using the design principles. For example, he used a modal dialog box with a background fade to show shifting of base context. In Metro, if I were to see a modal dialog box, I might freak out.