A Talk Idea

Conference season is always upon us, and as my talks always seem to get rejected by conferences, I’m always trying to think of new ideas to pitch. I’ve kind of gotten away from the analytics topic—it seems like ever since 2013, I haven’t managed to get anyone to take one of those talk submissions (on the other hand, though, I’ve certainly been invited to talk on analytics, so I don’t get what’s up with the market right now). Lately, I’ve tried to think of more process-oriented things.

An idea that occurred to me the other night is to talk about something that I do think I know a lot about at this point: organizing a professional event. There’s a lot that goes into it! Finding a venue, figuring out the revenue aspect, potentially finding sponsors, promoting the talk, dividing up work, handling money. More and more stuff.

I don’t want to give anyone the idea that I’m not still figuring this stuff out, even now. But I do think I’ve learned a lot on the topic. While I think it’s possible for any dedicated person to organize an event, hearing about others’ experience is going to make it a lot easier. We’ll see if any conferences actually think this would be a good idea.

The Political Dimension of Design

The most recent issue of Jacobin had an interesting article by Eden Mesina from Indiana University on the Cybersyn project. To put it briefly: in the days of Chile’s democratically elected socialist government in the 1970s, they built a computer system to help them manage the economy. It collected data from all over the country while trying to preserve privacy and autonomy at the local level.

There is, of course, a political dimension to research and design, and this story is a good illustration. We can design tools to enforce existing power structures, or in service of new ones. For public good or for exploitation.

Mesina makes passing reference in this article to some amount of user centered design that went into Cybersyn. Apparently the designer, Stafford Beer, worked with actual workers from factories to build this system. I would have liked to have learned more about that, but I can understand that my interest there isn’t necessarily a common one.

Agile & BEYOND!!

On Thursday and Friday, April 30th and May 1st, I was at Agile & Beyond (or, as I mentally refer to it, Agile & BEYOND!) in Dearborn. The conference doubled in length this year, making for two solid days of pretty good talks on Agile and Agile-friendly topics.

The question of how to integrate with Agile has been at the top of the collective UX mind for years, at this point. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for people asking and talking about how we can work in Agile. Maybe it comes down to there just being new UX people encountering Agile for the first time, year after year, as their organizations adopt Agile or the UXer enters the workforce. Maybe it also comes down to the flexible nature of Agile – as a methodology that embraces adaptation, perhaps it’s more slippery than many other concepts.

While UX is talking about Agile, Agile sure doesn’t seem to be talking about UX, at least based on the sessions of this conference that I went to. If this conference was all I had to go on, there doesn’t seem to be any need for effective user research or any recognition that design is something that gets better when people deeply engage with it. When there was talk of usability, it was as though it was a commodity (“and then get some usability at the end”), and there was some talk of personas, as though they are a thing that magically appears.

Ultimately, this lack of visibility is on us. If people don’t recognize what user experience specialists can bring to the (figurative) table, then we simply have to make it more clear.

Ignite UX Michigan Returns!

Just a quick note this time: Ignite UX Michigan is coming back! Planning has gotten underway for this year’s event, and this year looks like it’ll be our best organized year yet. Which isn’t that hard to manage, since this is only the third year.

Last year was a valuable experience in breaking off pieces of the work and trusting it to other people. Not that we were hesitant to do so—it was more the case that in the first year, we just didn’t know exactly what the work would be shaped like. This year, we’ve got more volunteers, and I think part of the challenge will be keeping things organized and keeping everybody engaged with as much stuff as they want to do.

Oh, and the event will be in September this time. That’s because starting in 2016, we’re going to permanently move to the Winter semester.

More details to come!

No More IxDA Lansing

E7B0CF8F-2A7D-4DB5-A80C-AC5686CE030CIt looks like IxDA Lansing is in trouble. Their web presence was diffuse, so it’s hard to track down the authoritative place for information, but it looks like their page on the IxDA website hasn’t been updated in a long time, their own domain name has expired, their Twitter account is highly inactive, and their Meetup group no longer has an organizer.

This is a shame, because even when Michigan’s state-wide UX organizations were a lot more active, they never served Lansing (and Grand Rapids) as well as Metro Detroit and the Ypsilanti area. It’s good to have a way for local professionals to meet up on a regular basis, although the downside of a proliferation of groups is that the few people that will volunteer time get spread more and more thinly (like butter over too much bread).

I can see (what looks like) IxDA Lansing shutting down as part of a pretty broad trend away from organized professional groups in our field. We have a lot of alternatives for professional development, and a lot of ways to stay in touch with other people in the field. And asking people to do stuff after work, in their free time, to further their career is a hard thing to ask (and kind of exploitative, but that’s just the nature of the system we live in).

(Also, the decline of professional organizations ties into a question that interests me greatly: What is a profession, and are we one?)

IxDA Lansing, it was good to have you around.

History Project: 1990 – 2005

After conducted several interviews for my history project, I decided to focus for the time being on (roughly) 1990-2005. The more I learned, the more interesting this time period looked from the perspective of the professionalization of user experience.

To start with the obvious: There was no “user experience” field in 1990. That didn’t come until much later. At the start of the 90s, there was an academic field called human-computer interaction, made out of computer science and cognitive psychology. There were some practicing professionals, and they stayed in the orbit of the academics and took what knowledge they could glean from them.

During the 90s, the world wide web as we know it took off, starting with the invention of the Mosaic web browser in 1993. In the next few years, web design became a profession and exploded, figuratively speaking. In this context, Southeast Michigan saw the founding of some historically important design agencies, and the invention of librarian-style information architecture. Meanwhile, more and more people came into the growing usability profession by way of other fields like technical communication, visual design, and more.

The growing community of practitioners wanted ways to develop their skills, so we saw the founding of MOCHI at the newly re-organized University of Michigan School of Information. However, this organization had an academic focus, leading a few years later to the founding of the local chapter of the UPA (an echo of what happened at the national/international level, where the UPA was founded to serve the needs of new set of professionals).

So, yeah. An interesting time period. Before 1990, there were people in Southeast Michigan involved in the academic HCI scene and, of course, people working in human factors (although they seemed to not have formed a strong community). After 2005, the number of UX professionals kept growing, and the ways those people learned and formed communities changed a lot, getting away from the model of having few, large, centralized organizations. Those are time periods I want to dig into further, but for the time being, I want to flesh out my knowledge of those 15 years.

The Refrigerator that Made No Sense

As time goes by, I get more and more interested in how to design for entire experiences beyond a computer screen. A place like Disney World, for example, invests a lot of time and energy to ensure that little is left to chance in the experience of visiting their theme park. Similarly, architecture is fascinating to me because our buildings are, in a way, a huge interface for us to interact with.

Recently, I stayed at a motel. It was run down and kind of terrifying, like an ecommerce site that didn’t quite work right and looked like it was 10 years old. It offered a lot of amenities, but those amenities weren’t quite right. My favorite were the refrigerator and microwave. Having these things in a hotel room is awesome. You get to bring food with you on the road, save it, save your leftovers, eat them later. It’s great for thrift and for not wasting food.

Both of these devices were plugged into an outlet controlled by the lightswitch. That is, when you enter the room and turn on the light, the refrigerator comes on and the microwave starts beeping because it wants you to set the time. So, you get a great choice if you want to keep that refrigerator running: You can sleep with the light on, or you can get a ladder and unscrew the light bulb in the light, or you can push around the refrigerator and plug it in somewhere else. All of these choices are great.

I’m sure the logic behind this decision was to save power. If no one is in the room, why run those appliances? But it lead to this weird problem as a user of the room.

Spotify Updates, Queue Still Weird

Recently, Spotify released a new version of their OS X desktop app. It is prettier than the last version, but in ways that I have a hard time articulating. I think that they went over the fine details and made things like contextual menus look better, as far as font as spacing goes.

If it had just been a facelift, I could have gotten on board with it, but, wow, this is a company that is aggressively testing how far a valuable service will get you.

Their queue functionality has long been problematic, due to a model that baldly makes no sense. You can click “play” on the first track of an album to queue up the whole album. If you then pick another album and “queue” it, it will insert every track of that album after the currently playing song, thus splitting up whatever album you happened to be listening to. You also can’t remove items from your queue once they’re there, without clicking “play” on another whole song. This instantly clears out your queue. This is less user-unfriendliness and more like outright belligerence toward users.

Meanwhile, they hid the queue; instead of putting it in the nav menu on the left, it’s buried in the bottom of the screen as an inscrutable icon. Very close to the volume bar, which has lost its affordance and instead just looks like a decorative horizontal bar until you hover over it. (Although, truth be told, I’m curious how far context and relying upon an idiom that users may have actually learned will work out for this particular design choice).

Fundamentally, it just doesn’t feel like Spotify gets the concept of albums. Not just with regard to queues – managing albums is atrocious if you want to collect a large set, and the way that singles – actual, single songs rather than EPs – are treated as independent albums is bizarre. It’s clear that they weren’t thinking about how to handle albums until the beginning of 2014.

UX in the Mid-90s: Selling People on UX

The mid 90s (say, 1992-1996 or so) sound like a very interesting time for user experience. My history project has given me the opportunity to talk about this time period – a time period where I was not, let’s say, particularly concerned with UX, web design, or even the Internet, for the most part.

It was during this time period that the modern web browser was invented. Whereas before you connected to servers and downloaded documents, Mosaic, this first browser did, well, pretty much what you would expect a browser to do. Except that it was the first one to do so. Suddenly you could pull up web pages full of text and pictures and follow links to other web pages.

During these years, businesses started hopping on the Internet, more as a matter of prestige rather than a practical need to do any business online. Individual people became interested in building their own websites, and came to the conclusion that they could make some money doing this for other people.

Some of those people that enjoyed building websites are people that I’ve been interviewing. They started web design businesses along with a whole bunch of other people – by the time you got to 1995 and 1996, there was an explosion of web design firms.

Back then, the idea of user experience hadn’t penetrated as widely as it has today. Nowadays, UX is widely known as a critical component of a successful business, such that there’s supposedly a huge demand for UX professionals. Twenty years ago, it was necessary to sell potential clients on the idea of UX, as something that would make a website more successful than a pretty but unusable one, for example. It’s like UX was just one of multiple areas that a web design firm could specialize in.

But maybe that’s the way it’s always been, even today. It sure sounds like everybody is on board with the idea that UX is critical to a successful website, but it’s also an all-too-easy concern to jettison the moment a project runs into trouble.

How the UX Field Grew

I think that the expansion in the user experience field followed the growth and spread of computers. This may not be news to other people, and isn’t really a big surprise to me, but until I started the history project, I didn’t think quite so explicitly about the timeline.

UX’s roots go back far, but the human-computer interaction field, probably the start of usability or user experience proper, takes shape around the late 1970s and early 1980s. This field is, for the most part, filled with academics. One of the drivers of this growth is the spread of mainframes and then minicomputers away from academia and out into the business world, where suddenly these complicated machines had to be used by non-scientists. People in computing and psychology noticed suspected that these machines could be designed in a user-centered way, and thus human-computer interaction started to coalesce.

The field stayed mostly academic for much of its first decade. However, going into the late 80s and early 90s, microcomputers (AKA personal computers) came on the scene in a serious way and spread computing even further into the world. There were more and more practitioners working outside of academia to make computers easier to use, and while they took what knowledge they could from the academic CHI conference and from academic papers, there was a movement to start a professional organization that catered to practitioners.

Thus, UPA was born in the 90s, and, in time, other organizations related to user experience.

I still struggle with a good explanation for why a group like the UXPA struggles for membership nowadays. Perhaps it’s the result of our field’s success—with so many practitioners, there are so many opportunities to learn and to network with other practitioners, that there is a necessary fragmentation of professional organizations.