User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

User experience is strategy, not design

User experience, when addressed appropriately, is an holistic endeavor. The emerging conversation of “cross-channel user experience” is redundant, because if you’re weren’t thinking cross-channel (and cross-platform, cross-device, etc. etc.), you were doing “user experience” wrong.

As the holism of user experience becomes more broadly realized, something else becomes clear. Earlier this week, designer Jonathan Korman tweeted, in response to a conversation taking place at the Re:Design UX conference, “STILL having trouble defining the UX design profession.” I would argue that that is because there is no such thing as a UX design profession. User experience is a strategic framework, a mindset for approaching product and service challenges. In that regard, it is akin to Six Sigma or Total Quality Management.

It’s only once we recognize UX as “an integrative philosophy of management for continuously improving the quality of products and processes” (to borrow Wikipedia’s definition of Total Quality Management) that we appreciate it’s truly massive scale, and how limiting it is for UX to be solely associated with specific (and usually screen-based) design practices. It’s no wonder why at this year’s IA Summit, which was explicitly about “cross-channel user experience”, the primary emergent theme was how organizations need to break free of their industrial age, bureaucratic, and hierarchical ways, and embrace cross-functional means that align every employee’s work around the customer experience.

The practice of user experience is most successful when focused on strategy, vision, and planning, not design and execution. In other words, UX adds value by bringing design practices to strategic endeavors. This means generative and exploratory user research, ideation and concept generation, scenario writing and roadmap planning. The impact of those strategic endeavors will not be limited to product and service design, but should be felt across business development, corporate development, marketing, engineering, sales, and customer service.

With respect to design execution, user experience should serve to coordinate and orchestrate a range of design efforts, not just that which has historically been called “UX design” (wireframes, architecture diagrams, prototypes, screen design). This includes industrial design, retail and space design, marketing and collateral design, and more. I think a huge challenge for “UX designers” has been to square the design legacy of making with the new reality of planning and coordination, because many don’t feel legitimate if they are not building something tangible. It’s great to build something tangible, but that is no longer “user experience” — it’s just one of many activities that, in sum, fulfill on a user experience strategy.

User Experience Design is Dead; Long Live User Experience

In a recent post where I argued that the biggest challenge the field faces is understanding how companies can sustainably and repeatedly deliver great experiences, a commenter wrote Bryan Zmijewski from Zurb commented, “UX Design doesn’t exist and designers have only tried to reinterpreted what great product designers, design thinkers and design managers having been doing for many decades before the web ever came along. The only things that have matured are the designers themselves.”

My initial thought upon reading this comment was, “Bullshit.” But upon further thinking, I realized he’s partly right. When you’re designing for user experience, you’re designing toward a desired outcome, the user’s experience, not a thing. If this is true, then user experience design would be the only form of design not defined by the medium, technology, or artifacts of its design, and that’s weird. And so I’m beginning to believe “UX design” doesn’t exist, really.

The label “User experience design” emerged in order to combat the small-mindedness of design for technology that was prevalent in the early 90s. During the technological boom of the last 20 years, with the emergence of the Web, prevalence of computers in all aspects of our lives, and the increasing complexity of the things we are building, “user experience” has been a helpful term in that it continually reminded us to think beyond whatever narrow thing we’re considering at the time, and to consider the entire user’s experience.

And now, in 2012, with Apple, Inc. having the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, and an endless stream of CEOs and pundits talking about the importance of user experience, I suspect the phrase “user experience design” is no longer necessary, and could even be harmful. Harmful because it suggests that the only folks who need to worry about user experience are the designers, when in fact companies need to treat user experience no different than they treat profitability, or corporate culture, or innovation, or anything else that’s essential for it’s ongoing success. The companies that succeed best in delivering great experience are those that have it as an organization-wide mindset.

(Why is the comment only partly right? Because UX design was not simply a matter of reinterpreting that great designers have done in the past. It has been an ongoing attempt to grapple with the newfound complexity of the subjects of design, a complexity that our prior tools and methods were simply not up to the task of addressing. And he’s wrong for using the phrase “design thinkers”–if “UX design” doesn’t exist, than “design thinkers” most certainly do not.)

The Frontier of User Experience

In the months I spent figuring out what was going to be my next move after Adaptive Path, I spoke with many folks about the transition. And in that process I began to realize something that I had never articulated.

Up until a few years ago there was no better place to push the boundaries of user experience than in design consulting, and within that, no better place than Adaptive Path. This was because the field was undergoing rapid methodological development. Those of us in the field of UX were making it up as we went along, and Adaptive Path had the fortune of an operating model that encouraged codifying these approaches and teaching them.

And then, around 2008, that changed. The pace of development ground nearly to a halt. The territory had been charted. There weren’t new methods to explore. We as an industry had largely figured out how to do our work. It was mostly a matter of applying the most appropriate tool given the nature of the problem. UX. as a practice, had matured.

Given that the field had matured, and we know how to design for user experience, it begs the question, Why are so many experiences so bad? It was in 2008 that I began to seriously think, write, and speak about organizational change, with a 90-minute talk at UI13, “16 Challenging Steps to Becoming an Experience-Driven Organization.”

There are a number of companies with very smart people, talented designers, and an honest desire to do right by the customer, and yet they deliver crappy experiences. And even though I had been talking about it for three years, it hadn’t really hit me until April or so of last year — the frontier of user experience is organizational. How do you get a company to sustainably, repeatedly, dependably deliver great experiences? That’s the biggest challenge our field faces. And while as a consultant I could offer advice or guidance, I wasn’t really solving tackling the problem. In order to seriously address these challenges, it requires a day-in, day-out organizational engagement that lasts for years, a kind of engagement that project-based design consulting simply does not afford.

What does the user experience field have to say about social media?

In recent months, likely due to the rise of Twitter, potential clients of Adaptive Path have been asking more and more about social media, and how to respond to it. And while we have some definite ideas, one thing I realized is that the field of user experience has been oddly silent about how to engage in social media. If you read the blogs and mailing lists that designers frequent, they rarely address how to consider Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., from a user experience point of view.

This surprised me, since the UX community is a remarkably active participant in social media. Since the field began to take off in 1998 or so, blogs and mailing lists have been the single best means of learning about the field and leveling up.

I fear that the user experience field has defined itself by a series of artifacts (flow diagrams, architectures, wireframes) and this has placed a conceptual boundary on the kinds of problems we successfully engage. The user experience of social media is not addressed through wireframes — unless you work for one of these social media providers, your company’s or client’s user experience of social media will be outside of your design control. It’s meaningless to draw a wireframe of a Twitter conversation.

I suspect that in order to embrace this opportunity, user experience types will have to put down Visio and Omnigraffle and find other ways to “deliver”. The most obvious next step is that we’ll need to be more comfortable writing principles and guidelines, akin to Christian Crumlish’s recent piece for the ASIST Bulletin.

But, as designers, the distinct value we can bring is in experiential tangibility, and it leads me to wonder, how, as a field, can user experience folks best engage in the social media dialogue? Because right now, it’s sadly dominated by douchebags who seem to think that social media = a sexy new form of marketing communications.

Post-Ownership Society – Track That Meme!

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve termed, in my head at least, a “Post-Ownership Society.” This was spurred by an interview conducted of me on user experience trends 55 years into the future. One thing that’s clear is that the importance people associate with owning stuff will decrease. It will be supplanted by access, experiences, and the act of creation.

This is a meme I’m starting to track. Kevin Kelly wrote about how access is better than ownership in a post on his blog, “Better Than Owning”.

Kelly focuses much of his discussion on media, where it’s patently obvious that in 5-10 years we’ll all be subscribing to access to The Media Cloud, listening/watching/reading pretty much whatever we want when we want (with some exceptions, notably live events).

My key realization about post-ownership is something Kelly neglects to mention — carsharing. So I found it interesting that The New York Times published a lengthy feature last weekend on this emerging phenomenon. (I’ve had this post brewing for a while, so this struck me as serendipitous.)

A few weeks ago NPR’s Science Friday featured an interview with a quantitative psychologist who found that experiences, not things, lead to longer term happiness. (This was presented in the context of Valentine’s Day, and what you should give your honey.)

In early February BusinessWeek had an article on falling prices, though it turns out the prices that fell in 2008 for products; the price of services rose last year.

At the end of last year, futurist Paul Saffo spoke on KQED’s Forum about the emerging Creator Economy, which will push out the Consumer Economy.

I’m bummed I didn’t get to see Lane and Thor’s talk on “The End of Obsolescence: Engineering the Post-Consumer Economy,” as I’m sure it touches on this as well.

I’m excited about this development because I’ve long been an advocate of Less Stuff, and I think it provides a remarkable opportunity for those of us who work in the area of designing for services and experiences.