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.