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Misconceptions about user experience design

Whitney Hess wrote what I consider a very good article to help people understand the term "user experience": 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design. I have seen others call it "brilliant" and other wonderful things. Great job, Whitney! The framing of what UXD is not is obviously one of the appealing aspects of the article.

I do have a few quibbles with her article:

  • #2. I would have said "it is part of the process" to stress that user experience methods should be woven into other business processes (like product visioning, requirements analysis and customer service) instead of replacing them.
  • #3. I would have said "it is not only about the technology". Her examples are good to stress that people come first, technology enables. Still, as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, it will become more and more important to the total user experience.
  • #5. I would have positioned this more as "it is not just about the customer". A company, non-profit organization, university, government agency, or other institution has many different stakeholders, many different groups it has to serve. Customers are definitely a very important one, but there are also employees, shareholders, business partners, students, citizens, the public, reporters, and so on. I know there is a lot of baggage with the word "user" but at this point in time, it helps merge these groups together. It helps us focus on what their goals are and what they are trying to accomplish. Her focus on user goals + business goals is good, but I think it is actually bigger than this: UXD applies outside the business world, too.
  • And in the title of the article: I might have dropped the word "design". This is a tough call. For people who get that "design" itself is holistic, then this is a good term to include after "user experience". Unfortunately, some people still equate "design" with graphic design (or fashion design, or interior design, or any number of things), so then you have to explain that pre-conception away. The word "design" does not seem to be getting in the way of a useful discussion in this case, which is good to see.

Again, Whitney wrote a very good article. These are minor adjustments I would have made, and some people will think they make the article worse. Take them or leave them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I responded to Whitney's call for participation for her article. She did not include my stuff, which is fine. This blog posting is not sour grapes. It is really a "great job, Whitney" with a few points that might further the conversation (and hopefully will not derail the great conversation she has started).

And if people are interested, below is what I gave to Whitney on the topic. I think it overlaps with several of her misconceptions, so I can see why she did not use it: she divided her article up differently, she had more content than space, etc.

There are so many misconceptions that it is hard to pick the one or two to mention here.

I guess I would have to say the most significant misconception is that you can form a single "user experience design" team (usually made up of information architects, visual designers and user researchers) and expect that alone to make things better. That is only one of the first (and perhaps the easiest) step to actually creating better experiences for your customers / citizens / users.

Other important steps include:

* Getting user experience to be the focus much earlier than any "design" step in your organization. When the budgets are determined, when the projects are defined, when the requirements are determined: the people involved in those decisions need to be aware of UX considerations or else the design team will only be able to put a semi- workable user interface on a system that has UX flaws from the start.

* Establishing a collaborative culture where many parts of the organization are working together on the same UX goals. No one team can own the entire user experience, so the UX teams that are really making progress spend more time working with other groups (promoting the UX vision, explaining UX challenges, planning project interlocks) than drawing wireframes or designing novel interaction styles. Taking care of some of the details of the experience is still important, working closely with the front-end developers is still crucial, and so on, but without the collaborative culture, the core UX design team's work will not have a large impact on the total user experience.

* Building a really strong UX design team because it is really difficult to juggle many projects across the organization that all touch the user experience, keep up with an efficient Agile development team, keep tabs on the latest UX trends, and everything else the team is asked to do once the organization sees how valuable the team is. You need several senior people, with the right mix of skills and personalities, who are always in sync with the state of the company's UX, and who are also active in the UX community as a whole. A UX design team that feels overwhelmed with work tends to break into smaller pieces and do their work in silos, which will lead to a fractured experience. It takes a strong manager, too, of course.

There are other steps, and even these 3 have a lot more depth and subtleties into them. For example, how to do any of these steps is highly dependent on the politics of the organization: a Fortune 500 is totally different from a start-up which is totally different than a government agency.

So I guess in conclusion, the most important misconception I see is that you can form a "user experience design" team alone and make a difference. You need these other steps (and more) mapped out and executed on.

Back to her very good article (tired of me saying that I liked it?). One other piece that is missing is the "executive version" - something you can scribble on the executive washroom wall so that the top dogs in your organization can read it during one of the rare times when they are not distracted by other things. Here is my version of a recap:

  1. User experience design is not merely user interface design. The user interface is just one piece of the total user experience.
  2. User experience design is not a single step in the process. It is about focusing on the user experience at all stages of the product/service lifecycle.
  3. User experience design is not only about technology. People come first, the technology helps enable a good experience.
  4. User experience design is not just about usability. Emotional aspects are important, not just efficiency.
  5. User experience design is not just about the customer. It is about all of your stakeholder goals (including business goals).
  6. User experience design is not expensive. There are many techniques available, depending on budgets and other constraints.
  7. User experience design is not easy. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you know what users want and need.
  8. User experience design is not the role of one person or department. Responsibility for the total user experience belongs to everyone.
  9. User experience design is not a single discipline. Specialists can address one aspect of the experience, but the design happens as a team.
  10. User experience design is not a choice. It is a core part of what your organization needs to do in order to survive.

This is too long to write on a stall wall - and I would never tell you to vandalize anyway. But I think some sort of simplification to her wonderful article ("stop brown nosing already!") adds value.

ASIS&T meeting impressions

Last month I attended the ASIS&T 2008 annual meeting. I have attended all of the IA Summits (also by ASIS&T) but this was my first "annual meeting." I typed up some notes during the conference, but wanted to wait to compose my thoughts and reflect a little longer. Here ya go.

Highlights for me:

  • I liked spending time with colleagues that I have not seen in years. Like: Gary Marchionini and Cathy Marshall, to name just a few. I caught up on their research, they caught up on the challenges for my job.
  • I got some IBM work done, meeting David Millen and connecting some of his research to initiatives. It still pays to find IBMers by going to (outside) conferences.
  • Both plenary sessions helped me think outside my box and see how the rest of the world is using the Internet these days. For example, the Digital Youth Project report has now been officially released. Check it out.
  • Strengthened/made local connections, such as old colleagues at IAKM and LexisNexis, new ones at OCLC and Wayne State.

So, net, it was worth attending, for sure. Any time I can drive a few hours and hang out with fellow user experience professionals who have traveled here from around the world, I will be there. I do all I can to support UX-related gatherings in the midwest.

What I found really interesting about the event (neither good nor bad, just different), were the elements that made it a meeting first and a conference second. When I compare it with other professional association annual gatherings that I have been to (like the CHI conference by SIGCHI and UPA's conference), then I notice some things that stand out here:

  • Business and committee meetings, special interest group planning and other things to "do the business of ASIS&T". These things happen at "conferences" too but they were more prominent here.
  • The "intellectually stimulating" content (the conference part) is driven by the ASIS&T org chart. Special interest groups, in this case, sponsor the panels, seminars, etc. In other association events, I think the sessions are more driven by individuals, not "each SIG organizes their own track".
  • Lots of fellowship, awards and recognitions. Since this was my first ASIS&T meeting, it sort of felt like my first big reunion with my wife's extended family. I only knew a subset of people, I did not get all of the inside jokes or the personalities, but everyone was very welcoming and wanted me to come back for next year's get-together.

I can see how this type of annual event builds up loyalty. Come to one meeting and you could get "hooked", volunteering for all sorts of worthwhile ASIS&T activities for the next 12 months. You will almost have to attend the following year.

The meeting-focus does provide some challenges for the "technical program" side of the event, however. There is a lot of competition for compelling conference content, and when people ask me "where can I go to really stretch my brain for a week?" then it will be hard to recommend this conference over the many other choices. Making the conference sessions better would also help draw in some "outsiders" (non members), which would hopefully lead to some getting "hooked", and so on.

Which leads me to my only real complaint about the conference. To be blunt: There were too many academics on stage talking for too long. There were not enough researchers from companies on the panels. There were not enough practitioners giving their views. Most sessions did not leave enough time for audience questions and conversations.

I really do not hate academics - I love them, actually. I knew this would meeting would be research and academic focused, I was looking forward to that aspect. I had some great conversations with professors and students (at the SIGUSE symposium, in the hallways, at lunch and at the poster sessions.) But it was too unbalanced for me. If you know me, you know I do not bitch that often, and I only do it because I care and I want to make things better. So let me offer these suggestions for future technical sessions at the annual meeting:

  • Each research-oriented panel must have at least 1 member who does not work at a university. A researcher from IBM, Microsoft, some other organization, who talks about the topic from their company's point of view.
  • Each panel must have at least 1 practitioner to act as a sounding board. "I hear what you are saying and here is how I deal with it in my world" sort of thing. Get more practitioners up on stage.
  • Encourage people to follow "best practices" for presenting. Like: more pictures and less text on slides. Take "clarification" questions during their talk and leave lots of time for discussion after. Provide an overview (only) up front and leave the details for Q&A (so if no one cares about your details, we do not have to hear them).
  • When a student is presenting their research, do not allow their advisor on stage. The advisor can only help answer questions after the student has done their best. I do not mind going to a session where students are presenting their work, but I want the students thinking on their feet and answering questions, I do not want their professors explaining things for them.

The research/practitioner divide was exacerbated for me because of the gap between the SIG Information Architecture community and the ASIS&T membership as a whole. That fracture runs deep and goes beyond the ASIS&T annual meeting, so I do not want to get into it here. Those things will get addressed.

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World Smart & Usable Planet Day?

Are "Smart Planet" and "World Usability Day" a match made in heaven or is it a silly idea to link them together?

Smart Planet is the buzz within IBM. More than just our next marketing ploy around "innovation" and unlike the declaration that the web was for real, this is something bigger. I am no expert at it (and I was not one of the bloggers given early warning), but I did know it was coming since is going to be an important part of whatever it turns out to be.

Here are a few of the things that I have been watching/reading (the things I can share with you, at least):

There are many aspects that interest for me. A few things Sam mentioned during the Q&A of his talk hit home the most. One was mentioning Service science efforts within IBM. Another were the ways we have to work to solve these problems: multi-disciplinary, end-to-end, and collaboratively. Sounds like how I have worked as a user experience professional for many years. And the third piece is the overall importance that connecting things via web technologies will be, something else I am starting to get pretty good at.

What does this have to do with World Usability Day (which is going on as I write this, on the other side of the globe from me)?

  1. This year's theme is WUD Transportation: see the Global Transportation Challenge, read transportation experiences and many of the events will focus on transportation issues. For Smart Planet, one of the examples is about changing driving behavior.
  2. Last year WUD was about Healthcare, another common problem cited in the Smart Planet work.
  3. More generally, my participation in WUD the past few years has forced me to think more planet wide, more "worldly." I think it has helped prepare me for something like Smart Planet.
  4. I suspect I could make many more connections between the Earth-Day inspired World Usability Day and Smart Planet, but this is getting too long already. You get my point.

I have zero pull within IBM, but it makes sense to me that IBM should sponsor it in some way in 2009. If the company is really serious about Smart Planet, it needs to start sponsoring ways to foster the conversation, and World Usability Day 2009, with a theme of "Smart Planet" would be the perfect fit for a design thinking angle. If Sam gives me a call [LOL] then I will happily introduce him to Elizabeth Rosenzweig.

So as I reflect on this blog posting, and in anticipation of my World Usability Day starting tomorrow, I am left with one last thought.

User experience and information architecture cannot solve the world's problems, but with a push from the business world, the right political climate, and some inspiration, I am ready, willing and able to chip in and do my part. I do not really care what we call it.

World Usability Day 2008 plans

World Usability Day 2008 is next week: Thursday, November 13th. Find an event near you (and please try to attend). See for more information.

This is the fourth year for WUD. The first year I was too involved, working on the web site and in charge of the last beer of the day in San Francisco. Two years ago we hosted a small local dinner in Bowling Green to celebrate the day. Last year I was in Chicago for meetings, DUX and for the annual holiday shopping spree, so I attended the WUD session there.

This year I tried several times to organize a local event, but failed each time. I had several possibilities around the "transportation" theme, including something hosted by the University of Toledo Transportation Center. Didn't work out.

Fortunately, I have plenty of choices of things to attend in the Michigan / Ohio region:

I was invited to talk at both the MSU and LexisNexis events, but I could not commit since I was trying to organize something locally. The nice folks at NEOUPA are willing to add me to their panel at the last minute, so I will be in Cleveland this year.

Now the question is: can I attend another WUD event and still make it to Cleveland on time? I could drive 2 hours up/back to Michigan State in the morning. Or I could drive 2 hours to Dayton to catch the first hour of their meeting. Or maybe hit the "lunch hour" at AEP in Columbus. Not sure these will be worth it, but you might see me make an appearance in one of those places.

I hope you get to celebrate World Usability Day with your local user experience community, too.

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interactions article about Randy Pausch

My paper copy of interactions November / December 2008 arrived on Saturday. (The online copy was available last week, just never got a chance to check it out.) Included is an article I co-wrote with Fred Sampson:

Some of the back story. I was asked to write a review of the Randy Pausch story and what it means for user experience professionals. Inspired by Randy: "How do we, as a user experience community, make the world a better place?" But I could not write a decent article: I was too caught up in the emotional aspects (and this was before he died). My blabbering devolved into an article about my inability to write a decent article. Fred stepped in and wrote the core of the new article and used bits and pieces of my work.

So hopefully the article provides value, given its unusual origins. And difficult topic. Writing is hard for me, and this was the hardest thing I ever tried to write. Thanks to Fred for salvaging it.

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Keynote at SIG USE research symposium

I had the honor of presenting one of the keynotes at yesterday's SIG USE annual research symposium (part of the 2008 ASIS&T annual meeting in Columbus). The theme was "Future Directions: Information Behavior in Design & the Making of Relevant Research."

I took on the task of giving SIG USE feedback "from the outside" with these two perspectives:

  • Human-computer interaction, information architecture and general user experience professional. What is this thing called "human information behavior (HIB) research" and how does it relate to the research disciplines I am familiar with?
  • Practitioner. What can practitioners learn from HIB and apply to their challenges? How do we bridge the research/practice gaps?

I broke my talk down into 3 sections:

  • About me and my journey to gain an initial understanding of HIB
  • An analysis of the symposium position papers, where I tried to distill them down into both "how do we connect with designers" and the specific research they are doing which I might be able to apply to my "finding information" challenges
  • Stories about things I work on for, with the hope that they could spur some ideas for some research topics

Download a PDF of my slides (2 meg). I deleted / cleaned up a few things for the public archive. And usual disclaimer: slides geared for the presentation. If you were not there, they may not be very interesting.

I sped through the slides and talked too fast, but I think (hope) that I put forth some good questions for the SIG USE community to debate going forward. The individual discussions and small group work after my talk were very valuable to me. I have some more reading to do (such as information encountering) and contacts of "SIG USE people" who I can stay in touch with. Looking forward to it!

One final note: I can see why SIG USE wins awards from ASIS&T. Very well run.

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UXDesignCast 13 - Panel podcast

I was a panelist on the latest UXDesignCast. Karel, Eliane and I have done similar podcasts within IBM, but this was our first external one. It was nice to have Valerie Fox join us - see her interview with Karel to learn more about her.

I have not listened to it yet, hope I did not say anything stupid.

We plan on doing more panel podcasts and are using the UXDesignCast tag on delicious to keep track of things to talk about. Feel free to add things to the list for us to consider.

Silver surfers

The US home page has a feature on Helping seniors surf the web. The video sets the stage by talking about the aging Japanese population, and then explains how IBM helped Mitsukoshi, a department store, make its web site easier to use for older people.

The Human Ability and Accessibility Center has a case study if you want to know some of the details. (I thought there might be a Japanese version of the case study, but that page just links to the English version. No, I do not read Japanese, but one "trick" I have learned over the years is how to navigate in Japanese, and other languages, that I cannot read. One of the skills you acquire being on a worldwide team and working with great folks around the world, I guess.)

I think the last time usability and accessibility got this kind of coverage on the US home page was February 2007. Good to see. IBM does lots of cool things like this.

And in case anyone was wondering, I am part of the team that manages the high level links across the sites. That includes the links in the tabs on the home pages (come to my talk in Detroit next week to hear stories about those links), but I have nothing to do with the feature stories. This time, however, the home page feature folks did give me a heads-up that this story was coming, since they knew I would be interested in it and might want to write about here. So I got a sneak preview of this one.

Organic networking event, Detroit, September 30th

I will be part of Network and Learn - An evening of user experience design and information architecture discussion - Hosted by Organic next week. I will be the "filling" for two networking "cookies".

I will be doing another version of my There is a story behind every link: Tales of information architecture from talk. This talk was designed to be not much work for me - I have a basic intro and then take a ton of questions - so that I could, in part, do it on short notice. Folks at the Detroit office of Organic wanted to host a meeting, so I was able to help by pulling this talk off the shelf.

If you plan on attending, RSVP on Facebook. To get the most out of the session, spend some time on find stuff you like, stuff you hate, stuff that baffles you. Speak up during my talk and make your comment or ask your question. Chances are I will have an "interesting" story: about how we pulled it off, or about the challenges we face as a large company. I bet there will be a few nods of "sounds like where I work, too...."

Also, be sure to show up in time for the networking event before my talk. And I will try to keep my talk short so you can enjoy more networking after. That is the part I enjoy more than the talks, to be honest.

IBM Center for Social Software

My employer announced the opening of the IBM Center for Social Software today. Irene Greif kicked off the "MIT day" of the IBM Academy of Technology Conference on Future User Interfaces with the news of the new center, that she will be leading. I was able to attend part of the conference remotely, but I missed Irene's talk this morning (darn real work!). Here are some more tidbits I tracked down.

And, no, I did not have anything to do with the Center's web pages. If I would have been involved, I would have made sure they at least came a little bit closer to our standards.


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