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May 05, 2003: UX Bumpage

User experience (UX) is too young to be clearly defined as a field, a movement, a community, a methodology, or a goal. But whatever it is, there is definitely a there there.

For example, Dennis Schleicher, with a background in ethnography, just sent an email to me, with a background in librarianship, about a presentation on UX made at the Society for Technical Communication's annual conference by Lee Anne Kowalski, who I'm guessing has a background in technical writing. In turn I forwarded Dennis' email to Jess McMullin, whose background is in psychology.

Meanwhile, many of us are gearing up for the first DUX conference (DUX = Designing User Experiences), which is co-sponsored by SIGCHI, SIGGRAPH, and the AIGA. Those are very strange bedfellows indeed; oh, to have been a fly on the wall at their program committee meetings...

I'm sure you've come across such weird interdisciplinary agglomerations in your own work, whether or not the term UX came up. And I'm guessing there are many folks in some fields not (yet) typically considered as part of UX--like content management, knowledge management, programming, data modeling--that are suddenly bumping into the term.

With all this bumpage going on, it'd be nice to be able to say exactly what UX is--a field, for example--even if we can't agree to the scope of our definition. (The AIGA has made a noble effort to define the term "experience design," which I suggest is synonymous with UX.) But maybe it's even premature to attempt agreement over what UX is. Instead, I suggest we consider some more basic goals to help solidify UX:

  • The best starting point is growing awareness of UX. As pointed out above, more and more people are naturally becoming aware of the existence of UX through grass-roots efforts, and it's heartening to see concerted top-down efforts on the part of professional associations. What else can we do to make the light bulbs appear over our colleagues' heads any faster? Simple: we can do a better job of explaining why we need UX. Here's what works for me: today's information environments are simply too complex and too strategic to be well-designed by a single disciplinary perspective, using that discipline's conventional methods. How might you explain the need for something called UX?
  • With so many disciplines at the table, we need a common UX language. Or at least we need to remember to translate for each other. For example, when I presented at the Content Management Strategies conference last week, I had to be careful to use the term "end users" rather than "users". For content managers, "users" refers to authors and editors who will interact with a content management system. If I hadn't done that little bit of translating, many of those attending my talk would have been lost. Small acts like this, whether at conference presentations or in day-to-day conversations with colleagues, ultimately go a long way.
  • Assuming our mutual communications improve, we can begin to develop a common UX methodology or, better put, toolkit to help us research, develop and test our designs. This is already happening; indeed, newer fields like interaction design, information architecture, and knowledge management have arisen in large part to provide integrated sets of methods from existing fields. But we still have a long way to go, as there many existing fields still rely a bit too exclusively on their old standbys (e.g., marketing folks relying on focus groups).

These goals are ambitious, but they're also already underway, at least organically. They're probably more realistic than trying to develop a single definition of UX, or creating a UX community, much less a UX discipline. These are even loftier goals, and will all require both broader awareness and some common vocabulary, so let's start by getting the word out and being ready to do a little translating.

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Comment: Lou (May 5, 2003)

Jess reminds this senile old geezer that he and I have actually developed a diagram of how UX and its related disciplines fit together:


Comment: peterme (May 5, 2003)

I've been thinking about this, though from another perspective, and one of the products of that thinking is my latest post, on the balance of Craft and Engineering in UX.

The history of UX essentially requires this balance, as your notions of bumpage suggest - people from diverse backgrounds, some with an engineering bent, others with an artisanal bent, all meeting in this UX space.

A couple of thoughts on your post, specifically:

A common UX language will help. I think that as good a place to start is Jesse's Elements of User Experience (be it the PDF or the book).

A common UX methodology I'm less convinced we need, at least, at this stage. If only because such a methodology has seemed to emerge (based on Research - Plan - Design), and additionally, I suspect we're currently straitjacketed by such a methodology, and the field would definitely benefit from some radical approaches right now.

Comment: Lou (May 5, 2003)

Peter, very interesting about the straitjacketing; can you get into this a bit more?

I should add that I don't think we should all be using the same methodology. I *do* think it would be useful to collect methods in one "place" to enable the selection of the most appropriate methods for any given challenge.

Comment: Mark Thristan (May 6, 2003)

What about a common purpose in the first place? "Making *stuff* useful for people that use it." Vague, I know, but it does cover the common ground without getting tripped up by semantics such as "end-user". Any thoughts?

Comment: peterme (May 6, 2003)

Straitjacketing: Well, in working with a bunch of different companies (including consultancies and "in-house"), it has become clear that there is a User Experience Methodology that has emerged... Adaptive Path has its Wheel of User Experience:

This developed with input from all the partners, and in sharing it with others, it's clear that our approach is not unique.

And I wonder if that's problematic. I wonder how we could use new methodologies and approaches to shake things up a bit. On the inspiration side, bake in GBN-like Scenario Planning into the mix. Do more stuff that involves improvisation. On the engineering side, get more serious about incorporating log analysis and actual behavior. Maybe we need to consider these cycles to extend way beyond a product launch -- typically a UX methodology goes from conception to 'launch,' though we all know that launch is merely the first of many milestones of a successful project.

Comment: Ron Zeno (May 6, 2003)

"User experience (UX) is too young to be clearly defined as a field"

Yes, 50+ years is a bit young compared to fields that have existed for centuries ;)

Putting a new name on an old field, then ignoring all the accomplishments of the old field demonstrates what?

Comment: Lou (May 6, 2003)

Ron, many would argue that there's more happening than just slapping a new name on an old field. For example, the Web didn't exist 50+ years ago from what I understand; it's likely the source of some changes in the way we think about designing user experiences.

So... speaking of which: what exactly is the old field that you're referring to?

Comment: ML (May 6, 2003)

While standards and methods help folks get the message out to those outside our work, I often wonder if it keeps us from innovating. Yes there are "design" patterns available and probably even repositories for cookie cutter "methods" but do we prevent ourselves from moving forward. Just coming back from a data management and modeling conference, I am reminded that with all the goodies for calling itself a single discipline, there are still flaws in advancing the field...we will always need folks to constantly push the envelope on what UX or IA is. It seems that we're going through what the data modeling world has been going through(mgmt acceptance, ROI, standards, certifications, methods, frameworks for notations)...I promise I'll get that trip report out this week.

Comment: Ron Zeno (May 6, 2003)

"But Ron, why are people suddenly calling something UX? Something has changed, no?"

Because it gives an excuse for ignorance perhaps? Lots of things change, but more remain the same.

"Please enlighten the rest of us."

Sometimes knowledge must be earned, and it is usually better respected when it is.

Comment: Beth (May 6, 2003)

If you haven't, I'd encourage you to read Clement Mok's column in the recent Communication Arts (see http://www.commarts.com/ca/coldesign/cleM_185.html ). Definitely bumpage material, even if he doesn't explicitly talk about UX or ED...since he is one of the AIGA ED movement's founders, the inference is hard not to make!

Comment: George Olsen (May 7, 2003)

> Putting a new name on an old field, then ignoring all the
> accomplishments of the old field

I'm not sure who you think is doing this. Myself, I see UX as a convergence of a variety of different fields, and a field that builds on the preceeding ones.

Sure practicioners have paid attention to a user's/audience's experience for eons. But while they've generally focused on one (maybe two) of the following: form, content and behavior.

For example, as a profession:

* Graphic designers focus form and content. I was never trained, nor really focused on, dealing with interaction the way someone from an HCI background does.

* HCI has focused on functional aspects of interaction, including form to aid functionality (although aesthetics have rarely been a prior in UI design and usability). But they haven't really dealt extensively with structuring content -- 'cuz traditionally applications didn't have them in way many website do.

* Librarians know how to structure content six ways from Sunday, but haven't dealt with interactivity, nor have they deal with visual communication.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

UX takes a holistic view of form, content and behavior -- and deals with how to balance them appropriately in mediums where all three are present.

Comment: George Olsen (May 7, 2003)

As far as developing a common UX methodology goes, I don't see much danger in being straight-jacketed by a top-down approach, since I think it would be mostly ignored anyway. I agree with Peter that a general approach is developing -- but people have been busy tailoring to their particular circumstances.

What's potentially useful is more of a bottom-up approach in collecting a toolkit with an eye for taking a look at what's worked, what hasn't, and what's appropriate when (accounting for things like project size, time, budget and emphasis, i.e. what's the balance among form, content and behavior).

It's also a chance to look at similar techniques and approaches from related fields, whether its GBN-style scenario planning, or (some really interesting) techniques from product development, or quantitive analysis from market research. So of it will be worth stealing, some won't, some will spark new ideas.

Likewise, it's a chance to find out where the same thing gets called by different names -- which in itself may not be a bad thing as long as we know there's a (un)controlled vocabulary being used.

Me, I'm comfortable talking about "requirements development" to programmers, "business analysis" to executives and "user research" to peers if in each instance that's the language they're most comfortable with. The problem develop when you need to communicate across these groups.

Comment: Lou (May 7, 2003)

Peter, I wonder if you feel straitjacketed by the sequential aspect of AP's wheel? The specific methods seem quite broad, but maybe you lose flexibility by putting them in a specific order. Relaxing the sequence might allow you to insert new methods (e.g., scenario planning) or replace some of the ones currently in your wheel, doing all this on a case-by-case basis.

Comment: Ron Zeno (May 7, 2003)

Lou, I've received no reply to my email from you where I agreed it's best to delete my reply to the one of yours which you since edited.

George, "a field that builds on the preceeding ones." Different than the same (or better) attempts of 10, 15, 25, or 50 years ago? I don't see much building going on, rather reinvention.

"But while they've generally focused on one (maybe two) of the following"

Generally, but in some cases focused on far more. The representation at the very first CHI conference was broader than anything anyone here has proposed and included everything that has been discussed here.

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