Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Brief History of UX in Southeast Michigan

How did the user experience community in Southeast Michigan get to where it is today? At the UXPA/CHI/STC holiday mixer a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded again of just how much information about our history exists in people’s heads and nowhere else.

This isn’t news, and I’m not the first person to think of it by far. There’s certainly recognition out there that the founding figures in HCI aren’t going to live forever, and if we want to preserve any of our field’s history, we’d better start writing it down.

Indeed, writing about history from the past twenty years or so presents some interesting challenges that history from previous times did not—much of our correspondence has moved to email. I imagine that in the future where storage is cheap and the Internet never forgets, historians will drown in the amount of electronic correspondence available to them (emails, tweets, and the like). However, years and years of my own digital communications are completely lost, and I suspect I’m not the only one. There’s a time period—say, the 90s and 00s—where our emails were much more ephemeral than today.

That’s a problem for historians working in the future, though. My immediate problem is that there are a lot of living people with knowledge in their heads rather than knowledge that’s written down. I don’t want to write a comprehensive history of HCI, though that would be fascinating to read. I don’t even think I could cover all of Michigan. Southeast Michigan alone is interesting enough.

After all, this is the region that produced TecEd, a respected user research company, an early iSchool in the form of the University of Michigan School of Information, and the place where information architecture was born one of the two times it was born. This area has seen chapters of the UXPA and ACM SIGCHI rise and decline, and an explosion of independent groups. I want to get out there and interview the people that were around for these events.

I don’t know exactly what I will write, where I will write, or how long it will be, but the more I think about it, the more I want to do this.

2012 was the year of the analytics book. 2015 will be the year of the history project.

Watching Doctor Who Legally

As I write this, it’s Friday, November 7, 2014. The season/series finale of the 8th season/series of Doctor Who is tomorrow. Or, rather, it’s a couple of days away. I’ll be watching it on Sunday morning after downloading it from iTunes.

This will be the third year in a row that I’ve watched Doctor Who through legal means. I haven’t had cable in a long time, and for a few years, I found ways to watch the show as it aired rather than waiting for it to come out on DVD. I realized, as many people do, that I would gladly pay for a hassle-free way to watch this (and other) shows.

Just to be clear: Waiting until Sunday morning to watch this show on iTunes or Amazon sucks. In the case of Amazon, it really sucked this year, because their season pass was going to force me to pay an unknown price for not just the actual episodes, but also for all the bonus materials. Still, I’m on board with paying for something I want to watch and having a frictionless method to get it.

That’s the same reason I pay for Spotify and why I’ve bought old games on Steam that I’ve already owned on CD-ROM and why the thought of being able to subscribe to HBO GO intrigues me.

As this post gets published, it won’t be long before the Christmas special, and I have to solve the problem of how to watch it all over again. Convenience matters. Convenience sells.

The Inscrutable Google Docs Plus Button

Google DocsI find the aesthetics of Google’s Material design attractive (even if it’s not my favorite thing ever), but it takes some getting used to. What really caught me recently was the “make a new document” button in Google Docs.

When it comes down to it, it’s not the symbol itself that’s a big problem—I can make sense of a plus sign as something that adds another doc.

Mostly, it’s the placement of that button that gets me. The last iteration of Google Docs put the button in the upper left corner. With the redesign, it migrated to the opposite corner, so that was one change that threw me off.

Another part is that the button changed from a notice-grabbing, contrast-ey red to the same blue that everything else in the interface is. I guess they’re relying the contrast of blue against grey rather than a nice red that pops out of the page as a whole.

Lastly, Google changed from a text label to a plus sign. The plus sign makes enough sense when you think about it (although, as an aside, I’m skeptical of just using symbols rather than labels). Without the color and sensical placement of the button, though, there was no reason for me to think about what the plus sign meant. It wasn’t even that I found the button confusing—I simply didn’t think about it until I realized I didn’t know how to create a new document.

Does UX Need Professional Organizations?

Does the user experience field need professional organizations? I’m not sure.

I put a lot of time into my local UXPA chapter (back when it was just the UPA), and more recently I’ve worked with the international UXPA. I did so to help myself network, but also because I take professional development pretty seriously. Of course, there was also an element of doing good for my local community. in the 2000s, Southeast Michigan had a vibrant and highly active UXPA chapter that put on 6-10 meetings per year and participated in local conferences.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to go to a holiday mixer organized by the local UXPA, ACM SIGCHI, and STC chapters. It’s an informal event, in that it consists of showing up and trying to take over part of a bar, and one thing I look forward to is talking to some of the other locals who have been or who are active in our local professional scene.

I expect the major topic to be the same problem that we’ve had to address for the last few years: What the heck are we doing?

Our CHI and UXPA chapters can’t find officers. Without officers, there aren’t enough people to plan events, which usually involves soliciting speakers, finding venues, and figuring out how to provide food. Our local chapters are solely funded by registration fees for events, so without putting on events, there’s no income, making it harder and riskier to plan further events.

It could be that the world has moved on and there simply isn’t as much of a need for the old organizations, with their concept of membership and formal titles. A key feature of Michigan’s UX professional scene is that the UXPA and CHI chapters covered the entire state, which consists of multiple clusters of UX people living and working at least an hour’s drive away from each other. It could be the case that it’s easier in 2014 to get UX-related training and to meet your neighborhood colleagues without spending a couple of hours on the road. It could be the case that there are more readily available infrastructures for organizing your own events, like Facebook and Meetup, than there were 10 years ago.

Given these factors—and note, these are just the ones I could think of on the spot—it could be the case that there just isn’t a need for formal organizations anymore, and that UX professionals will find ways to get together. Speaking as the co-chair of Ignite UX Michigan for the last two years, it would have been practically impossible to organize that event without the infrastructure of the UXPA and CHI chapters. They have large mailing lists built up over several years, and they have bank accounts—something that’s super helpful once you get into the world of sponsors and having assets owned by an organization rather than an individual.

It seems like at any given time, there are only so many people in the world with both the energy and the time to take on volunteer work with existing organizations or founding their own or just doing their own thing to organize professional activities. Over the last few years, those people haven’t been involved in our legacy organizations, but they’ve been busy nonetheless. Lately, Michigan has seen more localized groups and a mixture of formal and informal meetings.

I suppose I come down on the side of “these institutions are worth saving.” I’m sure that at least part of the reason is that I have invested my own time into the local UXPA chapter, but I also know that formal institutions offer remarkably useful infrastructures for building large and sustainable events and, through volunteering to help plan events, an opportunity for those who find networking painful and false to do so in a structured and slightly-less-painful way.