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.