Leaving IBM

Starting in April, I will not be an employee of IBM. Why? They laid me off. I am not upset about it.

It was a great 10 years. I got to work with great people on really challenging and interesting business problems. I contributed to several important, transformative efforts within the company. I made a difference for users across a variety of IBM digital touchpoints.

What's next for me? I do not know yet. If you are going to the IA Summit this week, then I want to talk with you about opportunities to collaborate. I am excited that I will get to do something new and different, and can build upon what I experienced working for IBM for a decade.

What did I learn, teach, discover, accomplish, survive the past 10 years? Four items to start with as I reflect back a bit.

1. You can indeed have effective, distributed, worldwide teams (e.g., dozens of people, all working remotely, in many time zones) but it is not easy. It takes discipline, planning, good communication skills, and proper use of a wide variety of tools.

User experience methods are useful for planning the "team experience" and information architecture skills come in handy for organizing the work spaces.

2. Agile UX & development processes, in general, are a better way to work in large corporations, since it makes it easier to do continuous, incremental improvements.

In a large, complex, systems-driven infrastructure, the "trick" is in the analysis phase (aka "writing stories"), where large problems are broken down into smaller work items. Avoid the roadblock parts of the infrastructure - things that are so broken, they need to be thrown away.

Certain parts of the user experience will always stink until the company commits to starting over from scratch. Make progress where you can and constantly remind management what is FUBAR.

3. One of the trends I see coming is more and more integration of UI design systems. Within IBM, our latest web redesign included a huge effort to combine our intranet and internet UIs. They do not look exactly the same, but our definitions/implementations of breadcrumbs, local navigation, icons, page grids and other UI elements are the same now.

The business case includes both UX benefits and costs savings. For example, a widget developed for the intranet can easily be used on internet sites.

The integration is happening at a larger scale within the company now. With platforms evolving quickly (smart phones, tablets), companies will need to spend even more time integrating UI design systems to make all of their digital touchpoints fit together.

My personal interest is on the information architecture side: how to organize the elements in the design systems (in a multi-faceted classification scheme, of course) so they can be integrated.

4. A technique I used for dealing with stakeholders on a daily basis was acting like a "requirements therapist". Groups would come to me with the "solution" in mind (e.g., "add a link to the home page", "we need smaller tabs to fit them all on our pages") and I would ask them lots of questions about how they got to this as the answer to their problems.

What is the actual business problem you are trying to solve? What are the user needs, goals, tasks? What other options did you consider (and what are the pros/cons of each)? What impact would this have on other business units? What would be the ideal user experience (even if we know that is not possible)? What is the bare minimum we can do to move us in the right direction? And so on.

Sometimes the net result was no actual change to the user experience, but the client changed through the therapy.

Four of my thoughts after 10 years with IBM, without getting into the weeds. And boy, are there a lot of IBM business and technical details I have gotten into over the past 10 years, things only an "innie" gets to experience. I guess that is something else that is important: how to stay at a high level for a while, and when to get into the details to actually get the work done. Being able to switch your brain quickly from the "clouds" to the "weeds" - and back - is crucial.

10 great years: now to start the next great 10 years!

Site back

I shut down the site for a while so I could fix some things on the back end. You would not have noticed, except that I have not been posting anything for longer than usual. Everything seems working on the new version of Drupal, new hosting service, etc. So a lot fewer excuses to skip write something here!

Frontiers in Service, Columbus, Ohio, June 30 - July 3

I learned about the Frontiers in Service conference back in 2007 and I have been keeping an eye on it ever since. It is where a lot of IBMers present their Service science, management and engineering research. Sylvia Long-Tolbert also had great things to say about it back when she was a professor in the business college at the University of Toledo. After touring the world, the conference is making its midwest USA stop next month, so I am trying to figure out a way to get there. Not my core areas of interest, but I am sure I would learn something.

A few things that I notice that make me want to go:

  • Lots of IBMers, presenting their latest research and talking about the state of the field of service science. Jim Spohrer, Wendy Murphy, Paul Maglio, Jeanette Blomberg and more.
  • Some "service design" presentations that I should be able to apply. Not as focused as Emergence was in 2007 but I should get something out of it as a practitioner. I like that they have "best practitioner paper awards" - so this is not just research for researchers.
  • I see some presentations by Dwayne Gremler from BGSU. I have not met him yet.

The price is a big minus: hard to justify that for something that is not in my core interest area. Given the cost, family things (the summer is already packed) and work (being a weekend conferences helps there), not sure I will make it. If I miss it, hopefully there will be Twitter stream to follow. And I can follow up with my IBM colleagues separately to get reports from the conference.

Blog topics: 

Midwest UX presentations and recaps

Midwest UX was 3 weeks ago. I am still trying to review the presentations and the reports about the conference. My list....

Summaries, recaps and other things about the conference

Slides and presentation material

Let me know if I missed something.

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IA Summit 2011

I am missing my first IA Summit, after making it to the first 11.

I can get some value from the conference remotely.

  • I am definitely following #ias11 on Twitter. It will get crazy soon, as the Saturday sessions kick off and people are tweeting from up to 4 sessions at the same time.
  • I also plan on tweeting with attendees, asking them questions and sometimes even participating in online discussions that stem from what happens face-to-face.
  • Decks are being posted to SlideShare. Some people won't post until after the event, which makes sense, so this will become more useful over the next few weeks. Martin Belam is also maintaining a list of slides.
  • The conference CrowdVine instance has some activity.
  • Some pictures are being posted to Flickr with the ias11 tag.
  • The Facebook event is pretty quiet.

I have not found anyone who has written a recap of Day 1. Or who is planning on doing "trip reports" from the event. Everyone is too engaged there, I completely understand.

If you find some other way to participate remotely in this great conference, let me know!

Midwest UX Conference

I will be at the Midwest User Experience conference on the weekend of April 9th (in downtown Columbus, Ohio). It is great to have another conference nearby that I can participate in without having to get on a plane. (Or miss any work - that sounds like a bug, not a feature.)

In just a few short months, the awesome team of mostly IxDA Columbus and COUPA volunteers have done an amazing job of getting fantastic keynotes, along with a great mix of local and "international" speakers for the rest of the program. I am helping them out, glad that I can contribute in my small way.

It is already sold out. Sorry if I sent you email in the past, got you excited about it, but you were not quick enough to get in. If you are attending from the Toledo region (or passing thru on your way from Ann Arbor, perhaps) then contact me to see if we can arrange a car pool.

If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, be sure to list yourself at Lanyard and/or Facebook so others know you are coming and you can connect with them.

There are still ways your company can be a Sponsor. So please consider that - it will be worth it.

I may organize a group excursion to the final Blue Jackets regular season home game (Saturday, April 9, 7pm). If you are interested in hanging out with your user experience colleagues at an NHL game, contact me.

Finally, if you really like the concept of a top-notch user experience conference here in this part of the world, I am interested in proposing Toledo as a future host city. Lots to figure out, but let me know if you want to try to make that happen.

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"Why We Buy, Why We Brand" summary

I attended "Why we buy, why we brand: a historical look at our relationship with brands" by Debbie Millman last night. Another great AIGA Toledo event. Glad I went, informative and inspirational talk, good to get out of the house and see some colleagues, good to be on the University of Toledo campus, and a great turn out on a Friday night.

Debbie is an "icon" in the design community, pun intended, with her books and radio show/podcast, and AIGA leadership. And of course, her work. Things we see every day, like a font for candy and wildly popular orange juice labels.

It was great to have her in town, as part of the Detroit/Toledo Design Re-View competition.

This talk (sometimes labeled the reverse, "Why we brand, why we buy") has been given before in Richmond, Harrisburg, Hartford, Providence, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, to list only a few. Alaska is a future stop. What a road show!

Here are the 2 best recaps of other versions of this talk (and then I do not have to repeat the details here):

You can also buy a Designcast of this talk from Print.

Now, my thoughts.

I think I was the only one tweeting the talk. I did not do many, but a few things jumped at me as Debbie was talking:

  • Big brain bang 50k years ago considered cultural universals. Making and marking things.
  • The brain likes to solve puzzles, creates different neural pathways when figuring out a logo
  • most popular brands now are those services that connect people. Brands as connectors, we are part of the pack

Debbie offered a free book to anyone in the audience who could name the first trademark. I knew it, since I was Googling things and drafting this blog entry while she was talking. I decided to stay quiet and see if anyone else knew it. Sorta feels like cheating when you use Google to win prizes.

The biggest chuckle from the crowd may have been when she showed the Evolution picture.

The history part was enjoyable. I actually enjoyed the "pre-history" - before 1875 - more.

I know that she had some quotes about the iPod, but she did not have any Apple-fan-girl stuff that I recall. That was a refreshing change.

She was honest that her presentation was kinda light on the "science" stuff - even saying that past audiences have told her that was the most boring part when she went more in depth on it. But that was the most interesting part to me. As such, I'd have to say her talk was more about the HOW WE BRAND and less on the WHY. It was still good, but it would have been better for me with more of the science and fewer examples. I realize I was not a typical audience member, tho. I will still have to rely on the Brain Lady as my source of helping me understand why people behave the way we do. (Sad that I will miss her next visit to the area, February 24, hosted by Michigan CHI.)

I think a few times she said "people buy the brand" which irks me sometimes. I feel like people buy products and services, influenced by the brand. And the brand influences them based on the sum of the experiences they have had with those products, services and the company overall. Something to debate over drinks.

As is often the case, I do not think of good questions until I am driving home. One would have been about "place branding". Her examples were almost all products, a few services, but I did not recall any branding examples centered on geographic areas. She touched on this in her pre-history (how flags have evolved to represent nations) but not later. It would be nice to find place branding examples and try to fit them into her 5 waves. I guess my question would have been if she has tried this and if not, does she think that place branding even fits into the waves. Some might say that place branding is "behind the times" of product branding, not as mature. I dunno. Place branding for the Toledo region is actively underway, so it would have been good to try to connect those dots.

Another good question might have been about the future. When does Wave 6 start and what will it be about? I like to put speakers on the spot and make them predict the future sometimes.

So, net, it was a good talk, glad I went, I hope others enjoy it too.

Blog topics: 

WUD Research-Practice Interaction pre-work

On November 11th - World Usability Day - I will have the honor of giving a keynote "talk" at the Dayton-area event. I say "talk" in quotes because I really want it to be a more interactive session, where I provide enough background to get the discussion going, then the audience (participants, really) take over from there.

In the spirit of trying to make it easier for attendees to become participants, Douglas Gardner, the awesome organizer of the event at LexisNexis, has asked me to compile some pre-work / questions that he can distribute to people who have signed up to attend the Dayton event. I feel like a teacher giving students homework to do, but here goes!

Issues to consider, questions to ask yourself

  • If you are a user experience practitioner, what types of challenges do you face often that you wish you had a "scientific" answer to? Have you tried to find answers in the research literature? What roadblocks did you encounter when looking for answers? What successes have you had in taking research findings and improving your practice?
  • If you are a researcher, what is the value in engaging with practitioners? What is in it for you? Do you have any examples of success stories, where your research got better because of interactions you had with practitioners?
  • What should students of HCI, interaction design and other user experience disciplines be taught about research to better prepare themselves for the practitioner world?

Things to read

Things to do

  • If you are on Twitter, tweet something about the research-practitioner interaction topic with the #uxrpi hashtag.
  • Get a napkin (or some scrap of paper) and sketch something. Bring it to the session, you will have a chance to share this with every one else. (Even better, post your sketch to Flickr.)
  • Brainstorm a list of possible solutions to what you think are the most important research-practitioner challenges. Or make a list of solutions you know about from other fields. Bring it to the session.

Also, I have not quite figured out how to handle the interactiveness with a session in Ottawa who is planning on listening in remotely. My IBM/Cognos colleagues are hosting their own WUD event and will be joining both IBM's Social Media in the Workplace session (at noon ET USA) and mine (at 3:30).

And we might have others joining us remotely. We will have a LiveMeeting and call in: (800) 963-3556 / Conf ID: 266.4656. 3:30pm ET USA, November 11.

I hope I can make the session worthwhile for everyone who joins us.

November 21 update: I finally got around to posting the slides (as presented) on SlideShare.

So you wanna be on our UX team? (BGSU ARTD 4050)

I did an intro to user experience for members of the BGSU ARTD 4050 Interactive Graphic Design classes this morning. The instructors, Amy Fidler and Jenn Stucker, also had guest speakers on kiosk design and social media. Sort of a "mini conference" of talks from practitioners for the students. Always happy to help out like this!

PDF of my slides

I tried something different this time, putting it all in the context of the student applying for a job on my fictional user experience team, and giving them questions they should ask of their potential employer. Sometimes I answered the question from the point of view of a "good" company to work for; sometimes what you might get from a "bad" company.

Below are the set of questions I prepared to seed the discussion. As usual, the class asked better questions than I prepared. The one that I think generated the best discussion was how they, as graphic designers on a user experience team, would work with the technical folks. Good: an integrated team where the developers worked hand-in-hand with the graphic designers. Bad: where designs were thrown "over the fence" and then ignored.

I ran out of time and did not get to do a quick overview of things to stay in touch with to help the students learn more, so let me list those here for the students:

A couple of people (on Twitter, Facebook) thought the idea of using a job interview as the setting for an intro to UX for students was interesting. It seemed to work OK here. But this was my first time trying it, so I already have some ideas on how to do it better next time. I will definitely prepare several "company" scenarios ahead of time - typical company/team profiles that match the types of places the students want to work. I used personal experience at IBM as one profile, of course, but talking with the students, they mentioned "print firms getting into digital" as a more likely company they would be applying to. Procter & Gamble (with its branding focus) was another. Small design agencies, Large design agencies: two more settings that I think would expose interesting answers about UX.

But it was fun trying something different. Getting out of the house. Hanging out with the students.

Finally, here are my prepared set of questions. (If you want my set of good and bad answers for each, sorry, I made up most of those answers up on the spot, only a few are covered in the slides.)


  • What is your definition of user experience?
  • Within the company, who "owns" the experience with the customer (consumer, citizen, constituent, partner, …) Does anyone think they own it?
  • Which channels does the team focus on – only web? Is mobile "hot" or "huh"?

About the team

  • Who else is on the UX team? What are their backgrounds? Who specializes in what things, which activities are shared?
  • What would my role on the team be? Would I specialize in the graphic design work? How much technical work would I do? Would there be an opportunity for me to branch out into other UX activities?

How the team works

  • How does the UX team collaborate with other parts of the business (such as stakeholders and technical teams)? Tell me a story of a typical engagement for the UX team.
  • Is this a single, centralized UX team, or is it one of several UX teams distributed throughout the company? Is this a "project" team or a "manager" team (which works on many projects)?
  • What UX methods does the team use? Do you have a "methodology" or just "methods"? Agile or waterfall? How would you compare your idea of the "complete method" (all of the steps needed to design for a good experience) compare with the actual methods the team has time/resources to do in practice?

Work atmosphere, culture

  • What professional development opportunities are there? Does our team participate in any local UX communities?
  • What does the team read (together)? Do team members write/contribute regularly?
  • Do we have time to "innovate" (try out new ideas)? Or just heads down and do the basics? Are we rewarded for failing?

The business

  • Who are the users? What are their goals? What specific tasks does the team design for? What is an example of some recent user research you did? Was it focus groups, a survey, ethnographic, remote usability testing?
  • What are some of the specific business goals that the UX team is designing for? How does the team UX strategy support the strategic direction of the company?
  • How is the team measured?

Researcher-practitioner interaction update (UXRPI)

I spent some time lately catching up with the status of various things related to my recent researcher-practitioner interaction efforts, my latest "UX community give back" focus. Something I try to make small advancements in during my "spare" time, with the hope of helping foster some longer-term benefits. Some of this is a repeat of postings/comments on gaps and IUE but it helps me (at least) to compile it all together in a new way.

Information architecture research, practice

Andrea Resmini and I wrote up our view of the IA Summit session we led for the August/September 2010 ASIS&T Bulletin. I think we list some do-able ideas at the end that could turn into something concrete for the community to embark on.

I have not seen any reaction to the report or the possible next steps. Even some negative response would be a sign that someone read it and cares enough to tell us we are full of it.

I do know that Dan Klyn has read it: the same Dan Klyn who ran for office in IAI and won a spot on the board. Andrea and others have already done a good job of showing how to mature the IA practice in IAI's Journal of IA. Perhaps one of the progress grants will focus on the increasing researcher-practitioner interaction in IA. The IDEA 2010 program has a Friday session that is related. "(How Is This All) Going To Work?" focuses on the educational aspect: if they could add the "research" role that educators often share, then it would be right on target. So I have some hope the IA Institute will pick up some of our IA research/practice ideas and challenges and run with them in some way.

As for any ASIS&T follow-ups, a few folks had ideas on how to continue the discussion at the ASIS&T annual meeting next month, but I do not see anything explicit in the program. Euro IA was last week: great looking program, but nothing specific about research/practice interaction. The IA Summit 2011 planning continues, so there is still a chance to have a consortium or some other session to help put specific ideas into motion.

CHI conference

I am still trying to digest all that I learned at the 1-day workshop and follow-up special interest group discussion at the CHI conference. The wiki we set up for the workshop - research-practice-interaction.wikispaces.com - has the position papers and notes from the sessions. I have the physical materials (flip charts and post-it notes) from the sessions and should make another pass through them to see what great points have not been captured on the wiki. And clean the wiki up some more.

One thing that has been useful for me is the overall model of the problem space that emerged for me.

Research, HCI culture on left. Corporate, practice culture on right. Bridges: Education, Knowledge-sharing, Communication.

  • There is a "pillar" of challenges associated with the research culture overall and the HCI research culture in particular. Those are on the left.
  • Similar pillar of challenges on the right: the corporate culture overall and user experience practice culture in particular.
  • It is hard to change culture. There may be some opportunities to address some of the challenges directly in each/both pillars, but be aware what you are getting yourself into if you try to tackle them.
  • There are 3 levels of bridging, across the middle: Education (fundamental training and schooling), Knowledge-sharing (helping researchers and practitioners by sharing details on a regular basis) and Communication (just making sure we can talk with each other in an intelligent way).
  • Improving simple communication between researchers and practitioners is one place to start. Sharing knowledge is harder (but has the bigger pay-off) and forming an educational foundation should lead to the ability to address deeper challenges.

Net: what I learned at CHI is helping me understand the landscape. It also inspired me to continue with all of this.

But the workshop/SIG had some specific goals around driving improvements for future CHI conferences. Lots of good ideas were generated, but like all volunteer efforts, they only come to be when someone steps up to make them happen. Here is what is in the works for CHI 2011 to improve researcher-practitioner interaction:

  • Communities, communities, communities. Arnie Lund is leading a revival of the community aspect of the CHI conference. The 4 "established" communities drive specific parts of the program and act as "entry points and guides for researchers and practitioners...help attendees and authors find ways to connect with the conference more effectively." New in 2011 are "featured" communities that provide more ways to increase RPI. For example, Health lists the benefits of research-practice interaction several times.
  • For the UX community (that I am most interested in), Elizabeth Buie and Jhilmil Jain are building upon the CHI 2010 workshop that they helped organize. They have set up a LinkedIn group for the CHI UX community to help the cause. Join it!
  • There are other efforts in progress to fine-tune parts of the process and to make the program more accessible to practitioners (like, doing a better job of providing "practitioner take-aways" for research papers). As I hear about specific advances, I will let you know. The key is always volunteers to make things happen, so if you are interested in helping out, let me know and I will put you in touch with the right people.

Norman, translational developers

As you start pouring time into a volunteer effort like this, you start to wonder if this is an important problem to try to solve. If you are lucky, then someone prominent is reaching the same conclusions as you are. That happened in May when Don Norman published his The Research-Practice Gap article. It appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of interactions later. A must-read for anyone interested in this topic.

When I posted a comment on my site about the article, I mentioned I did not agree with everything in the article. Don replied and that started some email discussion back and forth between us. So in the spirit of disagreeing a bit, let me point out a few things about the article (knowing it is dangerous to debate with someone who is a lot smarter than you):

  • I do agree that the gap between researchers and practitioners exists within professional associations (and their conferences), but one thing that Don does not point out is that those are some of the best means to address the gaps. Don calls for a new discipline, translational developers: it should be created within our existing organizational structures, in my opinion.
  • Separate "discipline"? I am not convinced we need a new "discipline" - maybe we just need more people who are willing/capable of working across disciplines. Find ways to have more people spend a few years as a researcher, then a few years as a practitioner, and so on. And "discipline" seems academic: I am more interested in business models which make this a career path that our best and brightest are interested in.
  • Translational developers? Why "developers"? In my UX practitioner world, "developers" means you write code. In one of his talks, Don used the term Translational Engineering. A little better. I think we need some work on what to call this thing. "Translational entrepreneur"?: someone who has figured out how to get rich doing this.

And on a more "write a better article" slant, I enjoyed learning about Pasteur's quadrant but it really bugged me that the article did not include a figure that was an actual quadrant. So I drew one myself - and Don kindly made it better.

Pasteur's quadrant with quotes from Don Norman's article.

I have not seen any blog postings or online discussions of Don's article, so maybe this post will stir up something. Having Don "raise the flag" should help all of us make progress.

Internet User Experience panel

Don's article was one of the topics at a panel I organized at the IUE conference (slides, Twitter stream and other details). I hope the attendees found the session useful, but I liked it because:

  • I got 3 more people engaged as panelists. Susan Weinschenk, Danielle Cooley and Mark Newman did prep work together to create short and long versions of their position on different issues. They have their own critiques of Norman's article, for example: now we need to figure out how to get the discussion going.
  • We did more napkin drawing to get the audience engaged. That has worked twice now, I want to keep doing it more.
  • One of Mark's points was about the trend of translational research that is catching on in medicine. This is a good reminder that many fields are struggling with the same issues: we may need to look beyond our traditional "industry" for some answers.

Again, check out the compilation of info about the panel to find out more. These are just a few hi-lites.

Demarcating UX

One more thing to mention. I was invited to the Demarcating User eXperience seminar that took place 2 weeks ago. I could not make it, but Elizabeth Buie kindly agreed to attend to help connect researcher-practitioner interaction efforts.

This quote from the seminar shows the relationship: "UX is seen as a holistic concept covering all aspects of experiencing a phenomenon, but we are facing the point where UX has become a concept too broad to be useful in practice. Practitioners have difficulties to understand the concept and to improve UX in their work, and researchers rather use some other term to make their research scope clear."

From what I have heard (and seen), the seminar went well and I am looking forward to what they share as a result (some sort of white paper). You can check out the position papers and other preparation material.

Since I was not there, I will not comment a lot on the preparation material, but my personal favorites are statements from the practitioners whom I know.

  • Nigel Bevan: "UX Should Not be Demarcated!"
  • Elizabeth: "If the practitioners can't use it [the white paper], it doesn't work!"
  • David Gilmore: About the relativity of experience, and the innovation cycle

Staying in touch

As these different strands of activity progress - and more crop up - and we discover other strands that are already in motion, staying in touch with it all is a big challenge. What is the simplest thing we can do? To me, that is to use a common tag that people can attach to different objects that represent progress in researcher-practitioner interaction.

I did some poking around and thought that uxrpi would be a good starting point. Short form of "User experience researcher-practitioner interaction". So I started tagging my tweets with it. And Flickr photos. And this blog posting. Let's see if it provides any value. If we need more mailing lists or groups or whatever, then that is fine, we can do that too.

If this post inspires you to write up your own comments on Don's article, or to dispute something that I said, or if you know of more going on to try to improve researcher-practitioner interaction, use the UXRPI tag. That will help others discover it.

What is next for me? A keynote about this for the Tri-State World Usability Day at LexisNexis & Elsevier in Dayton (Ohio) on November 11th. Hope to see some of you there!

(Oh, and this really did start out as a short blog post. Then it grew and grew and grew...)


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