Notes from User Interface 13 Conference

Comments on Luke Wroblewski’s notes from User Interface 13 Conference in Boston MA, October 13, 2008. Presentations from Jared Spool’s


A note of appreciation for Luke’s notes from User Interface 13 Conference, on Jared Spool’s keynote, and Peter Merholz’s walk-through of 16 steps his research shows are required to become an experience-driven organization.

Jared’s tack on user-centered design (UCD) dogma corroborates my growing suspicion that for all the attention UCD has garnered in recent years, it is not really proving itself out as well as interaction designers (and users) would like, often because design method and business culture are not really integrated in most organizations. That is, many organizations apply user-centered design methods but the larger business culture still doesn’t understand, thus truly support, those activities, or their roll in overall success. My hunch is that interaction design activities are better supported by “a design-friendly environment” (implying cultural attitudes) than rigorous methods. Though methods will always have their place, of course.

Jared’s use of the 80/20 rule (twenty percent of customers generate eighty percent of revenue) seems off. He is apparently saying that, because we don’t know if we’re measuring the right users when we do user-centered design, it is not useful. Well, if that is true, yes. But is it that hard to find out who that twenty percent are? For a start-up, this may be be so. For a long-standing company, though, it should be easy. Connect design to revenue, and designers to the customers generating it. If I were writing the ad: Got CRM?

For the “three core attributes of user experience: vision, feedback, culture”–there is a world to elaborate on. And Peter Merholz does:

“2) Understand people as people.” Yes! This, too, is extremely edifying to read, coming from such a respected source, speaking to a wide audience at a high profile forum. When I’ve thought about this sort of thing over the past few years, it is has seemed that too many in our profession cling too much to forms (or just the terms, sometimes) of user-centric methods, rather than their essential spirit and intention. The later of which are, admittedly, harder to learn, use, and measure. But I think he’s not just talking about emotional empathy, or candor, or even merely advocating that we improve allowances for the “fudge factor,” or “satisficing,” but duly criticizing us for cleaving too much to research, as if people live and work in zoos, and data about “users,” while holding them in cool contempt; a nation of simpletons who don’t know what they ought to. As if we do… quite the contrary.

One way I think of “understanding people as people” in relation to interaction design, is in the form of an axiom: design interactions as Shakespeare would write a play. That is, not only with entertainment, but people’s essential natures, even souls, in mind. But even at the emotional level, we can not become emotionally intelligent by “figuring it out” with frontal lobe logic, the way we do most of our work, any more than we can learn interaction patters by thinking emotionally. They are both valid tools of understanding, but using one to act on the other is like trying to turn a bolt with a screwdriver, or a screw with a wrench. Wanton sentimentality is of no use either. We are bombarded with faux emotion every time we watch TV. Most people are numb to it. We have to find ways to genuinely connect emotionally with people without getting sappy, or manipulative, which is usually sublime. And very rare. Not to mention unfamiliar to most people in a socially fragmented, post-industrial society.

As for “6) Move up the product planning food chain.” I’ve been trying to for fifteen years! Then again, I think this is not unlike the paradox of law enforcement, and presidential politics: the person least wanting power is often the most qualified to use it well. And while design is decision making, and designers don’t make all the final decisions, neither should non-designers make design decisions, any more than everyone on stage in a play should read everyone elses, or anyone else’s, lines.

“13) …Designers are facilitators.” Yes, yet the inmates often too still run the asylum.

“14) Think in systems, not artifacts.” Isn’t this what user experience design is all about?

“15) Focus on the long WOW.” Someone has been reading Tom Peters. Me too. Great stuff.

“16) …Do not become a department.” This is something I’ve been saying for so, so long: org structure, like process, improves or diminishes design work. And traditional hierarchical organizations, structured for industrial era manufacturing, thus labor control, are not well suited at all to systems thinking (i.e. interconnected webs) in a knowledge economy. See. Network-centric organization.

Thanks again to Luke W.

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