Quack! Some thoughts on DUX07 and the State of User Experience

Earlier this week I attended DUX07, a conference for discussion on designing for user experiences. Forthwith, some thoughts:

“Innovation” is a plague

I had the odd fortune of being the very first speaker at the conference. While I’m only partly pleased with my talk (forming a clear, concise thesis escaped me), I’m (perhaps smugly self-) satisfied with its effect. See, in my talk, I railed against “innovation,” and encouraged the audience to throw things at speakers who used that word. (Why? Because “innovation” has become well-nigh meaningless in its overuse, and it’s the word that designers latch onto in order to be relevant in a business context.) Over the next two and a half days, numerous speakers caught themselves as they uttered the term, and I felt that this really pointed out a challenge in our discourse.

I believe it’s productive to question the term “innovation,” because it forces people to say what they really mean.

Perception is reality

Well, I don’t know about that, but a surprising number of talks dealt with the power of visualizations and ambient interfaces to help us manage the “information firehose,” as keynoter David Pescovitz put it.

Academia just ain’t getting it

My biggest frustration with DUX07 is that it is largely a paper-based conference. As such, it’s beholden to what is submitted. The folks with the most time to submit are academics. However, as I twittered mid-conference, “The moment an academic takes the stage, the conference screeches to a halt.” This wasn’t 100% true, but it was often true, and easily all of the worst presentations were from academics.

But perhaps even more off-putting than the badness of some of these presentations was what that pretty much all the academic research shown was simply irrelevant. The matters at the heart of experience design are simply not being addressed by academics, or being done so in a useless manner. I don’t know if its because the subject is too squishy, multi-disciplinary, subjective, or what, but it was definitely a waste of time.

The conversation is worth having

Perhaps the best “content” of the conference, at least in my personal experience, was a lunchtime roundtable led by Ted Booth from Smart Design, on the topic of what makes a great hardware-software product experience. Around the table were folks from Palm, Schematic, Accenture, Motorola, and a gentleman whose consultancy works on Roomba (I forget the consultancy’s name), and we had a great discussion on the qualities of good products (Ted called out the Roomba and its delightful animal-like sounds); the challenges for delivery (mostly organizational, mostly caused by the siloing of the hardware and software folks); and the need for an articulated vision. We tried very hard to mentioning products from That Fruit Company.

In general, the break-time conversations were great, and I was in awe of the sophistication and savvy of the audience.

This audience deserves more, and better

Speaking of that audience, in my discussions with people at breaks, I got the sense that while they appreciated the spirit and purpose of the event, they wanted more. I know that conference team did their best given the material they had to work with, but I felt the event fell short of its promise (and in talking to other participants, I wasn’t alone.) “User experience” ended up meaning “design of interactive media,” which strikes me as incomplete. There was nothing about environments or services, nothing about coordinating multiple touchpoints or components. (I wrote about this over two years ago: “User experience should not be just about interactive systems — it’s a quality that reflects the sum total of a person’s experiences with any product, service, organization. When I walk into a store, I’m having a “user experience.” When I call an airline to make a reservation, I’m having a “user experience.” And innumerable elements contribute to affect that quality of experience.” And even then, all I was doing was recapitulating Don.)

What surprised me was that, contrary to things I’ve written in the past, user experience is very much not dead, and there are people passionate about the concept. But the passion resides not at the level of point interfaces solutions (websites, mobile, devices) — in my discussions, it felt that the passion was about how these things can be brought together so that the coordinated whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from Adam Greenfield’s product/service ecology keynote, this bigger picture was pretty much never addressed.

(To my friends who were involved in organizing the conference, please take this criticism in the constructive mode it is meant. I know you poured your heart into this event, and I in no way mean to diminish your good work.)

The State of User Experience

After attending numerous design events this past year, I’ve realized that they’re all evolving to a similar place, free from the specifics of their particular domain, and towards a shared “big D design” understanding. The IDSA event, nominally for industrial designers, dealt with many of the same issues as the Information Architecture Summit, the AIGA annual, DUX07, and even Adaptive Path’s UX Week.

And while all these design disciplines have distinctions in their details, what they all share is an emerging orientation to serving the user’s experience. And while DUX07 began to speak to that shared space, it’s interaction-design orientation left it falling short. There’s a huge opportunity to bridge practitioners from across all these design disciplines, to weave their various approaches and challenges into a larger experience design braid.

The User Experience field is still crying out for leadership. Currently, all activity is coming from the bottom up, from practitioners doing work in their various fields and recognizing that they’re working toward some interesting larger challenges. I think we need a bit of top-down leadership, though — people who aren’t simply reacting to what they’re given, but establishing a coherent vision for experience design, a vision that people from across these creative disciplines as recognizing as relevant to them, and helps them orient their work toward a larger purpose.

14 thoughts on “Quack! Some thoughts on DUX07 and the State of User Experience

  1. > After attending numerous design events this past year, I’ve realized that they’re all evolving to a similar place, free from the specifics of their particular domain, and towards a shared “big D design” understanding.

    I wonder if they’re also evolving _away_ from being meaningfully relevant to designers. At some point the discussion becomes so abstract, so ethereal, that it can be hard to draw either inspiration or knowledge out of it.

    There’s a point at which the term “User Experience” becomes as problematic as “Design” — it means all things to all people, and is useful to none of them.

  2. Constructive criticism appreciated, Peter. We enjoyed staging the conference and struggled early with many of the same issues that you surface. That said, we consciously chose only a slice of “big X design’ (eXperience – that is) as our focus – that dealing with the shifting role of Designers in the context of emerging networks, communities, social media and more. Specifically, we looked at the Designer as …

    Enabler – of community, relationships, commerce and an alternate self

    Collaborator – as the builders of frameworks and infrastructures of which consumers populate

    Disabler – of false messages and the contrived; enabling consumers to drive the message and for companies to be transparent

    Find our original thoughts here:
    http://dux2007.com/download/Theme-Manifesto_brainstorming_wall.jpeg

    Most of us in the User Experience field share the “cross-channel, fully brand integrated, multi-touchpoint, sum of all interactions, the brand and product is the experience” definition of experience design that you do, we just choose not to dwell on it in its entirety in these forums. At dux07 the magnetic pulls of interaction design, information architecture, visualization, data collection and synthesis methods weaved themselves into many of our presentations and discussions. It was inevitable.

    Designing for “systems and ecologies” (like Nike+, OnStar, Zipcar, etc.) would be a worthwhile topic for an entire conference (and I plan to attend), although we’re going to need more good examples to talk about. Cheers.

  3. The User Experience field is still crying out for leadership. Currently, all activity is coming from the bottom up, from practitioners doing work in their various fields and recognizing that they’re working toward some interesting larger challenges. I think we need a bit of top-down leadership, though — people who aren’t simply reacting to what they’re given, but establishing a coherent vision for experience design, a vision that people from across these creative disciplines as recognizing as relevant to them, and helps them orient their work toward a larger purpose.

    Is it really, though?

    I see so much blather about this on various lists, but it’s never clear to me -why- we actually need “a larger purpose.” What larger purpose? Whose?

    The only larger purpose I’ve ever noticed at any of these conferences is to claim exclusive ownership of various terms and processes for the purposes of promoting one’s company. Other than that, I don’t see the point. We’re all craftspeople, doing our thing — there’s no other “purpose” that I can see.

  4. I can appreciate some of the intention in stating that “innovation is a plague”. However, I fail to see how the fascination with innovation is much different than any other newly popular expansion of the field’s terminology. How has innovation become any more “well-nigh meaningless in its overuse” than the typical new term introduced into design professions?

    I remember, for example, “user experience” being incredibly overused in the 1990s such that anyone working on a website was suddenly designing “experiences”. Any time you put a button on a web form you were doing “interaction design”. Any and all user interviews suddenly became “ethnography”.

    I think it’s typical that our field latches onto terms as fashionable without really understanding them. Good for you for questioning that in this case, but I don’t see this phenomenon as the slightest bit unique to the word innovation.

  5. You wouldn’t be saying that because “innovation” is in your company’s name, would you?

    Agreed about the evolution of terminology, (and I talked about the pejoration of “user experience” in my presentation at DUX), but I find the overuse of “innovation” to be particularly pernicious, if only because its use is almost nothing other than mercenary.

    One thing I realized about innovation is that you cannot call something innovative or an innovation until after the fact. Anyone claiming they have a means to “drive innovation” or “create innovations” is selling you a line. Innovation exists, but you never know what is truly innovative until it’s been out in the market for a while.

  6. Certainly my perspective is influenced by being a practitioner who works with companies on a few particular kinds of innovation (management + business model). I would venture that your perspective is similarly influenced by what you do and who you hang out with.

    It seems to me to be true that within the design professions the use of the word innovation may be “almost nothing other than mercenary”. I do not think that’s true everywhere. There are some professionals who have been working for 15 or 20 years to understand innovation within business and build real knowledge about it — what it is, how it works, how to be more successful with it. They are not mercenaries trying to promote a fad, but craftspeople trying to understand a particular kind of practice in order to improve its outcomes, relevance, and to build knowledge about when, where, how, and why its practices can best be applied. It has only been recently that people like Bruce Nussbaum have picked up the term and made it appealing to designers in search of a different label that they think will afford more respect to the same old things that they do.

    I would contend that is very similar to the user experience phenomenon, where people like Shelley Evenson and John Rheinfrank and Marc Rettig and Jay Doblin were working on experience design in a very real way decades before San Francisco web designers picked up the term and bastardized it to fit their same old practices.

    I can see how at a conference like DUX your message may be appropriate, populated with many mercenary design practitioners ready to accept whatever term they perceive will grant them more relevance, respect, and authority. But I think outside of that context it lacks perspective, integrity, and coherence. We could get into a “defining the damn thing” argument, but then we’d be like the Democrats of the last decade, wouldn’t we — arguing pedantically over details within our own ranks that the world at large just doesn’t seem to care about.

  7. My feelings about the conference are virtually identical to yours. The audience seemed to be filled with practitioners who were more or less stunned to view presentations by out-of-touch academics (blogging as therapy was particularly clueless and the woman from Yahoo uniquely horrifying). I understand that masters and doctoral students often need to present their work in order to earn their degrees, but they clearly need their very own specific conference for that purpose.

    Your presentation along with the gentleman from the Huffington Post and the guys from Jumpstart made DUX worthwhile. I honestly believe that your presentation could be a basis for a tutorial or conference all its own: how do we get out of the mid-management ghetto and start making real changes for customers, across all touchpoints?

  8. While your comment about academics at DUX rings somewhat true there was certainly worthwhile work shown as well. Did you see Mark Baskinger’s presentation on the project that CMU did with GE to unify the user experience in the kitchen? Not only was it solid and relevant work but it addressed your other point about UX encompassing multiple touchpoints outside of interactive media.

  9. Simon–

    I quite enjoyed Mark’s talk, and should have been explicit in excluding him from the clueless academics club.

  10. Hey, Peter, sorry that the show wasn’t more edifying for you. As I wrote on Total Experience about DUX, I sensed that the conference mission might be a limiting factor. I hoped, however, that the sheer firepower of the assembled throng might make up for aiming at too small a target. Maybe next year (a phrase I’ve heard before).

    It follows that I applaud your call for integrative application of knowledge to designing for experience. First, however, we need the knowledge.

    Now, about innovation — your viewpoint is too ethnocentric (the “ethno” being North American). In Scandinavia, the scene with which I’m most familiar, the study and application of innovative methods is proceeding fast and furious, which is one reason the region is so out-running not only North America but also most of the world in terms of developing meaningful theory and finding valuable solutions. I refer you to Inside Service Innovation, a a report published in October by the Danish Science, Technology, & Innovation Agency. It’s very good — and though it holds few answers, it poses all the right questions about service design, which is a good start toward s scientific understanding of the phenomenon (rather than endless seat-of-the-pants anecdotes, which is typical of American business-book treatments). Moreover, there’s concerted energy behind the “Øresund” thrust: a Danish joint industry/government project on which I may be working, dealing with user-driven innovation, is funded to the tune of 50MM euros — about $65MM — and will last for three years. There are similar projects being organized in Sweden.

    Let’s make an end of separate theory, owned by academics, and seat-of-the-pants know-how, owned by practitioners; and work for their fusion as solid praxis!

  11. I totally agree that “innovation” is a term appropriate to the past tense – I blogged about it after talking with Scott Berkun at MX East and then reading Andrew Hinton’s blog. I’d also suggest that its not useful as a standalone term – its an abstract concept that can describe the solution in so many problem spaces – you only have to look it up in a thesaurus to see the problems with it.

  12. Good luck with a unified or common top-down approach to a design discipline with so little coherence that it can’t even agree on it’s own name.

    I stick to the terms user experience and interaction design in my every day work.

  13. “I think we need a bit of top-down leadership, though…”

    Any thoughts on people to fill the vacuum? I nominate Marc Rettig – seems to be a pretty good mix of academia and practitioner. He has experience redesigning both digital interfaces and physical spaces, as you well know.

  14. [...] Socializing is about creating a “Culture of Innovation,” but I agree with Peter Merholz and others who suggest the term is overused. (Especially in UX.) But innovation is not going away, so let’s find ways to make it work. [...]