Interview with Keith Instone

Keith Instone is a User Experience professional living in Toledo, Ohio. Since the late 90s, he has been active in Michigan’s UX community and in the UX and Information Architecture communities at large. More recently, he became the Experience Architect in Residence for Michigan State University’s new Experience Architecture program.

Argus

Argus was a design agency from the mid 90s to the early 00s, and was an important part of the nascent UX community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

How did you come to work at Argus?

While I was at Bowling Green State University, I read some of Peter and Lou’s articles[1]. I liked their articles, and read their book, and saw that they were in Ann Arbor. I met with them for the first time over lunch at their favorite Mediterranean restaurant. That eventually lead to working with them.

For a year or so I did my own consulting and stayed in touch. I didn’t see them at MOCHI[2] meetings—they didn’t really go as often as I did. Later, at some point as Argus was growing, they said, “We’re a bunch of librarians and it’s time to branch out and hire some not-librarians who didn’t graduate from the University of Michigan (UM),” and so then I was on their list.

When I was at Argus, I agreed to give a talk at MOCHI on web navigation. By the time I gave my talk, I was no longer working there and the company was shutting down. That may have been where some people learned about the end of Argus.

We did a talk at OCLC[3] in March 2001, which was our last official presentation as Argus. We went down to Columbus and on the drive home we got a message that we were closing in two weeks.

MOCHI and UXNet

Professional organizations have historically been a valuable resource for professional development and networking. The User Experience field has had the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI) since the early 80s, the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) since the early 90s, and the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) since the early 00s. Over the years, people from Michigan have been active in these organizations. In this section, we look at a few of these intersections.

You were involved with MOCHI when it was active in the late 90s and early 00s. How did you get involved?
Back then, I was doing research in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and the professor I was working with Laura Leventhal. She was my mentor, and she had connections to the University of Michigan, because that’s where she got her degree. We sort of knew the folks that were getting into HCI there, and at some point they said “We want to start a local chapter of ACM SIGCHI.” CHI had established itself as the primary organization at the time.

There was an organizational meeting at the Ehrlicher Room at the University of Michigan School of Information, and so we went up and asked, “If you’re going to do a local chapter, we’d like to be included. We don’t think that we’d ever be big enough to have our own local chapter.” They agreed, so as they were coming up with the name, the “O” in “MOCHI” was “Ohio”—at least in one version of the story. In another version, the “MO” was from “MO-town,” so I am sure some people did not think Ohio was part of the scope.

At one point, the chapter was supposed to be for Michigan and Ohio. Over the years we never really realized that. We never had anything in Ohio for people from Michigan to come down and do.

In those early years, it was the UM professors that invited, for example, their colleague from Colorado to teach a class during the day and give a talk at a MOCHI meeting in the evening. It was based on how they wanted to reach out to their students and what their research interests were. We would come up to Michigan for those because that’s the only thing happening. Otherwise, it would be once a year that you went to the international conference.

At some point, something changed. I think somebody else was in charge, and they started doing things that were not based on an NSF grant where they could fly people in. Events weren’t as often, and there were more local speakers. I can’t remember the particular year it changed, but over time, MOCHI changed from that research focus into more like a regular local chapter with a mishmash schedule because the people running it were busy.

I started to pay more attention to MOCHI because I started working at Argus in 1999. I would be in Ann Arbor during the day, so if there was a MOCHI event, then I would just come home late from work. After 2000, when I was working at IBM, that was still the closest community for me to stay connected to.

Tell me about UXNet, which I understand was an umbrella organization to bring together other UX groups.
We tried to do a couple of things at different layers. One was at the organization layer itself. We hosted an event at the CHI conference. We got people to spend time with each other. It was still contentious for CHI and UPA[4] people to hang out because it was after the breakup where the UPA formed.

We also had this local chapter program where we had local ambassadors who were trying to form connections. There were three flavors.

We had local ambassadors from a place like Michigan that had lots of groups already—they had a UPA chapter, STC[5] chapters, and a CHI chapter. Somebody would step up and connect them together. Then, if one of them brought in a big name speaker, the other groups could help promote it. Or, once a year they’d get together and have beer so you could meet a broader section of folks.

Other folks would step up to be ambassadors because they were in a really small region like the Toledo area, where if you picked one organization, there’d only be two people in your group. With this broader umbrella, you’d get two people from each group and then you’d have twelve people.

Then, there were other people in big cities like St Louis where they had enough people form a critical mass but they didn’t want to pick one organization. To be a legal organization, you’d have to pick one, but they didn’t want to alienate members of any particular group. They did more informal things. They wanted to form a UX community without forcing that decision of which group to join.

How did you get involved in UXNet?
That was probably just hanging out with Lou Rosenfeld. He was one of the other instigators behind it. We saw the trend of Information Architecture getting an identity, and the trend of having to pick UPA or SIGCHI. We thought UX was going to take over as the key term, but if we could speed it up by increasing collaboration, that was enough. Longer term, we had other grand visions of a forging shared services model, like getting the magazine from SIGCHI if you were a UPA member, for example.

At one of the Internet User Experience[6] conferences at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, we got a couple of hundred dollars from UXNet to buy the food for a UXNet meeting at the conference. We brought in some technical folks that were in the area who need to be part of the UX team, even though they want to hang out with other software developers most of the time. We also had the technical communicators, and some of the researchers at UM that weren’t hanging out with practitioners anymore. We took the big UXNet model and made it happen one evening in Ann Arbor.

We disbanded UXNet, mostly because the folks that had volunteered for it were all really busy. We just didn’t have time to devote to UXNet. We’d have a meeting and at the next meeting, no one would have made progress on anything. For a year we stayed together anyway, but eventually the folks who were in charge didn’t have any more time. We asked for people to take over and nobody did.

A lot of our grand plans were happening anyway. The groups that wanted to work together did. We provided some value at the time, we didn’t want to exist just because we did in the past. That’s a hard thing for a lot of professional organizations. Sometimes, the best thing to do is let the group die.


[1] Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the book that brought Information Architecture to a wider audience. Prior to this, Rosenfeld wrote the “Web Architect” column for the magazine Web Review, among other publications.
[2] Michigan-Ohio CHI was the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI).
[3] The Online Computer Library Center is an organization that helps libraries catalog materials.
[4] The Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) renamed itself the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) in 2013.
[5] Society for Technical Communication.
[6] Internet User Experience may be the first regular annual conference to take place in the Midwest, starting in 2005 and taking place in Ann Arbor, Michigan.