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Mar 30, 2009: Stop Listening to People like Me

I guess that history degree was useful after all

Back in the mid '80s, long before I was a naive publisher, I was a naive undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, where I took as many courses as was permitted from J. Mills Thornton, a student of C. Vann Woodward (what's with the initialed first names?), a tenured professor of US history, and a favorite son of Mobile, Alabama.

Think of what sort of person you'd expect to go with that name. OK, done? If you conjured crabby, glowering, intimidating, and fabulously brilliant, then you conjured right. Only he was more so. (Believe it or not, it looks like he's softened with age).

One vivid memory is Professor Thornton skewering me for misspelling "privilege" in a paper. I've never gotten it wrong since. Equally memorable and, more importantly, Professor Thornton challenged the notion the the US Civil War was all about the North and South clashing over slavery. Thornton showed us how another issue—states' rights—was perhaps the deeper problem, with the debate over slavery just one of its many battlegrounds. And that this tug over states' rights was as much an East/West conflict, with newer states' desire for self-determination bumping into the firmly established economic and governmental systems of the older states.

Flipping the UX debates

Professor Thornton effectively flipped his students' perspectives in a wholly unexpected way (Civil War? East versus West?). He helped us better understand what the people of the time may have been thinking, and why some fought for what appear to modern eyes as such clearly wrong-headed goals. I've found this analogy useful in trying to understand the current sturm und drang over the definitions and futures of and relationships between information architecture, interaction design, user experience, experience design, and a host of other things that, frankly, I've been so involved in for so long that it's become nearly impossible for me to have any sort of reasonable perspective.

I wrote a long time ago that the debate over UX and related definitions was not really worth delving into, because most of the discussions were ignoring the fact that definitions are so wholly dependent on context. And I've certainly been vocal on lists where such discussions break out, hoping and wishing people would move on to what I've felt were more productive pursuits.

Well, it'd be just as reasonable to hope and wish away the flu. It's a fact of life, and it'll come back again and again. Frankly, I'm embarrassed at how wrong I've been about this stuff. But I think I'm finally figuring out this phenomenon, and as a result I've flipped my perspective dramatically and, I think, productively.

I've started by remembering that the people who are discussing these issues most vocally—myself included—are in no way representative of the field. We are passionate, energetic, occasionally brilliant, and sometimes even convincing. But we are probably 2% of the field, and have little idea what the other 98% of our colleagues—practitioners who may never have even heard of UX, IxD, IA or the other bizarre acronyms—struggle with on a daily basis.

Lost in our own lifecycles

Why are we so brilliantly clueless? A better question is how have we become so distant from the Joe 10-User-Packs of the world? Because we're at different places in our own careers than most, and our fields are evolving in ways we're too myopic to recognize.

  1. We vocal ones are people who've been at this for a long time. Too long, really, to remember what it was like when we were new practitioners, or how we look to the outside. Additionally, many of us long-timers came of age when our academic programs told us to join this professional association or attend that conference. As unnatural as it feels, fogies like me have worked hard to overcome the disciplinary blinders we were given to accept the value of interdisciplinary design. Smart young'uns—mostly under 30—don't understand our conflict because they're natural synthesizers. They attended new programs, and they integrate methods and wisdom from all kinds of sources in an agnostic way, putting the rest of us to shame. Trust me, if you locked Luke Wroblewski, Whitney Hess, and Dave Shea in a room and told them to discuss design, you'd hear far less screaming and bitching than you'd ever hear from people like me.
  2. We vocal ones are also the people who were here when no one else was. Pioneers are required to open up any new domain. But then they quickly lose relevance and get pushed aside by homesteaders. Us pioneer types were never ones to fit in anyway, so we look for new frontiers (like mapping out newer domains, such as UX, or by working in different roles, such as as product managers or, hey, publishers). We are no longer the face of the field. We move on, or get moved on. Our fields are no longer what they were—they're not home anymore—and they require new kinds of leaders to move them forward.

So, there are two issues here that most of us are neglecting to consider in our endless discussions: career lifecycle and domain lifecycle. These are the East/West aspect of all of our debating. If you leave these out of the discussion, you can't really understand the debate, or the people debating, or what it should mean to you.

You flip; I'll move on

Long ago I was probably one of the world's greatest information architects. For, perhaps, a year or two. (It might have had something to do with the fact that there were only about two dozen of us who claimed the title at the time.) Then I got bored and more importantly, the homesteaders were better at it than I was. So I moved on. And that's fine; the issue wasn't one of competence and intelligence, but of personality type and attention span.

A lot of you know exactly what I'm talking about, because you're feeling the same difficult feelings. It's not so easy for us pioneers to pack up and move along from the nice places we've worked hard to carve out. But we really don't have a choice in the matter.

So, to my old friends, time to let go. We're not being put out to pasture—we're just moving on to other things, as is our true nature, and creating new paths. The homesteaders have taken over—as they should, given that they're the huge majority—and their needs will define our fields and settle these debates. Thank goodness. Let them design incredible experiences. And let us keep doing what we're best at—instigating new things.

To the rest of you—the thousands of design practitioners who are wondering what the hell we're all fighting about, just ignore us—it's a family spat, and like all such conflicts, appear as petty from the outside as they really are. If you do follow or participate in these discussions, please consider the roles of career lifecycle and domain lifecycle. And please keep an eye on us old guys, as occasionally we'll have some interesting new things up our sleeves.

PS Speaking of which, I have an old thing up my sleeve—UXnet.org—of which I'm now president, after diligently avoiding this role for the past seven years. UXnet may be old, but we've got some incredible new ideas that we hope will help practitioners truly build the field, whatever it ends up being called. More on this over the coming months; in the meantime, you might consider following @uxnet on Twitter.

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Comment: John Yesko (Mar 30, 2009)

Great post, Lou. Agreed on all points.

Comment: Whitney Hess (Mar 30, 2009)

Amen. Now let's get to work.

Comment: Michael Carvin (Mar 30, 2009)

Well said indeed. I'm looking forward to how the pioneers and the homesteaders might work together towards improving the land we occupy and share.

And even though this is a family spat, even we homesteaders should be considered family and learn from the history you've given us.

Comment: Victor Lombardi (Mar 30, 2009)

RE>But we are probably 2% of the field, and have little idea what the other 98% of our colleagues—practitioners who may never have even heard of UX, IxD, IA or the other bizarre acronyms—struggle with on a daily basis.

Exactly what I was thinking this morning as I read through an RFP that mentioned none of these terms and used 15-year old analysis techniques to suggest how a website be designed. Our effort is better spent doing what we do rather than arguing amongst ourselves.

Comment: xian (Mar 30, 2009)

Instead of a homesteader, I prefer to be called an emergent urban experience framework strategist.

kidding aside, Lou, I think you hit the nail on the head here.

I was thinking it might be time for me to skip the next IA Summit, not because I don't love IA and UX and everything in between but because new people need to be doing more of the talking and I need to be doing less.

(And, hey, I wasn't even at Asilomar! I'm like generation 1.5 of this thing).

Comment: Michele Marut (Mar 30, 2009)

Hi Lou. I agree with the others - this is a great post. You should considering posting it on the IXDA discussion list.

Comment: Janna DeVylder (Mar 30, 2009)

Spot on. I really appreciate you taking the time to synthesize this and share!

Another way to consider yourself and others in your position is that of catalyst. Take a look at "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations". The things you build need to have a life of their own, for if it can only survive with you in it, it never will last.


Comment: Dave Gray (Mar 30, 2009)

I think these kinds of conversations are like mapping. New ideas need to be placed on the map, and to put them on the map we need to name them.

The people who name things on the map are not the pioneers, they are the explorers. The pioneers come later. And let's not forget, Lou: the pioneers don't move on, they stay put and farm their land and build schools etc.

It's the explorers who move on.

Why does something get called IA or UX? For the same reason a town is called Sweetwater or Dry Gulch, or a country is called America or Greenland.

Three reasons:
1. Someone got there and named it.
2. The people who followed continued the tradition and somehow it stuck.
3. It didn't get changed in some cultural upheaval like, say, the Russian Revolution.

Right now it does seem that IA, UX or whatever we might call it, is undergoing some kind of cultural revolution.

I don't know where it will end up, but I do think the dialogue is an important one and I hope the voices of the explorers don't get lost amongst the shouting.

As the digital world becomes more integrated and enmeshed with our daily experience, terms and distinctions may be less important -- but the conversations still matter!

They can expose the nature of the terrain we are mapping.

Comment: Elizabeth Bacon (Mar 30, 2009)

Hi Lou,

YOU'RE president of UXnet now? Awesome! Please, do pipe up on the IxDA Discussion list! As I stated in the thread:


"I'm extremely eager to hear from UXnet's leaders whether they envision taking on a more active role in the world at large to address this situation."


Comment: marianne (Mar 30, 2009)

What frustrates me about the issues that have been plaguing both listservs is the unnecessary binary nature of the arguement. You either are or are not. You are part of this organization or that one. Yup, the landscape changes with more people making their individualized contributions to for a different whole. It is tolernace that difference that makes the most sense.

Why move on when tribal wisdom with youthful vision could spark something so much better?

Comment: Lou (Mar 30, 2009)

Marianne and Dave, you make good points. I don't know that people like me (at least) should completely move on. But we tend to dominate these discussions. 2% of us--and obviously not a representative sample--are responsible for the majority of postings on this topic.

We need to have new voices take over the discussion's agenda, if not the discussion itself.

Comment: Andrew Schechterman (Mar 30, 2009)

Kudos Lou on your new post to UXNet . . . and for your wise words which resonate with yet another post-30 member of the UX, UEA, IxD, UXD, IA, HF, ID, HCI, etc. tribe.

Comment: Tyesha Snow (Mar 30, 2009)

I am part of this second wave or homesteader set myself and I more than often find myself politely turning and running from conversations about what is UX/IA. I find it more productive to disucss how to better apply and utilize all the fun tools in our box.

Right now appropriate application of our practice is the most important plight of our profession(s). Sharing methods and examples of our work is the best way I continue to learn and grow. Hopefully all you old timers will continue to push the boundaries all the while sharing and challenging us to do the same.

Comment: BrendaJ (Mar 30, 2009)

Thanks for articulating that sentiment Lou. I've felt a bit distant from this whole discussion. I occasionally glance over out of morbid curiosity, but mostly I'm just enjoying not having to define my role at *my* job--finally, after all these years. And that is due to the work the "pioneers" did over the past 10 years.

Lately I've been seeing this whole ruckus as a sort of Founder's Syndrome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founder%27s_syndrome These are normal growing pains of a group with passionate leaders (as you so gracefully described), and I for one (assuming I have at least one foot in that founder category) am willing to hand over the keys and move on to the Next Big Thing. Or the Next Regular Thing that just makes me happy when I do it. Either way ;)

Comment: Andrea Resmini (Mar 30, 2009)

All of us who are not in for the sake of self-glorification work to find, mentor or train those who will ultimately replace us, whatever our work might be. It's either that way or no way.

And I'm not surprised at all that this sort of introspection comes from you, Lou. Thanks. This is a very important step towards a more mature field.

All the same, hang around gramps, methinks there's plenty you can still do for the conestoga caravan. ;)

Comment: Dave Malouf (Mar 30, 2009)

I'm not going to be contentious. My mission here is to listen carefully to the above. But David Gray's response resonated with me more.

I see the Moggridges, Wurmans, Verplanks, Crampton Smiths, etc. as my explorers, and in Gray's terminology I'm a pioneer. This is my home. I built it and explorers pass on through with no intention of settling, but as a pioneer, I'm here to stay.

I also believe that the battle is not about terminology at all, but the frameworks expressed in the semantics.

Further, to marianne's point I think that my robust tone is causing you to miss my talk about continuums. I totally agree with you that there is no black & white here and I have always spoken about gravitational fields and belonging to many communities (others have as well).

As I started off this post with, I will say that Lou's words are reflective in tone, but also inspiring to be reflective.

To Andrea, I think most talking are also doing what you say. They just aren't ONLY doing what you say. Hell! I'm a professor. ;-) ... I say this to say, that the message stated is expressed in a way that you can't or shouldn't be a part of both "behaviors" for lack of a better term.

Thanx Lou for sharing. I really do hope you stake the role of "settler" (I think that's the word I'm thinking about) and find the home here. Or make it just one of your homes.

-- dave

Comment: Andrea Resmini (Mar 30, 2009)

To Dave: I'm not sure I totally get you (my fault), but I had no intentions of implicating that all those talking are not working hard to build something.

I'm no founding father for sure, but I do have my opinions and have no problems at all in discussing them (bet you know that ;)). I wrote in that Bulletin article that I think these threads have a way to pop up every once in a while because we have compelling reasons to keep discussing them, all of them pretty much average for any field experiencing growing pains. My comment was mostly addressed at what Lou was saying, no strings attached.

And Dave, one final thought: can we avoid calling this a 'battle', even for the sake of rhetoric?

Comment: Jay Fienberg (Mar 30, 2009)

First of all, really glad that you wrote this, Lou. There a set of people involved in IA, UX, IxD etc that "founded" some aspect of it that is generally recognized, and whose roles have dragged them into way more concerns about definition and pedigree than are held amongst the rest of us.

We don't want to see you or those concerns put out to pasture--we still get a lot out of listening to what you're saying. But those concerns and debates aren't part of the big top of our fields--and we all should look for ways to keep it from asserting itself there. Because, in effect, whenever these debates occur, the space they are in automatically becomes a small tent off to the side with a "Sideshow" sign.

One other comment is relative to what you said about age and being at this a long time: some of us were doing IA work before the Polar Bear Book came out, and we have the relative agedness as one sign of proof. We didn't get into the IA movement at the beginning because being part of movements is not what we're into--we were fine doing IA before had it name, before it was well defined, before we knew a lot of other people were doing the same thing--and we don't go to conferences every year, either. We benefit tremendously from all that has come along since then, but it have always seen it as running parallel to what we were doing, rather than ahead of it.

And, we're not necessarily part of the set of people who are "tired with IA," regardless of our age or how long we've been doing this. IA is more like our good friend.

Comment: James Robertson (Mar 30, 2009)

Hi Lou, agree completely. The real battle is to draw clear boundaries within our overlapping professions, but to get the word out to 'normal' web teams, intranet teams and project teams everywhere.

Like others, I started to take for granted that everyone at least knew what usability and IA was, even if they haven't done it. In my recent trips through Europe and Australia, my assumptions have been shattered.

As you say, there is still the 98% of people who we've yet to really reach.

This is one of my recent efforts:


Comment: John Sheridan (Mar 30, 2009)

Does this mean we can't play (virtual) Punch Buggy on Board calls any more?


The best path forward is a united approach to the whole idea(s) of UX. Outside the U.S., there is still a much lower awareness and acceptance of UX (no matter the faction) as a justifiable dollar investment.

Many are seeking to promote the importance of disciplines, but really, we need to make it simpler for those who sign cheques.

Then, we all win.

UXnet.org Locales Chair

Comment: marianne (Mar 30, 2009)

I know that it is hard to believe but true that I think before I speak or type. I do so because I know that this is a strong and smart crowd and that I must be "on point" in order to be heard. I believe that this is a good lesson for those entering the profession and the discussion. I certainly hope that we continue to challenge the "lurkers" to work harder to enter the conversation and to rationalize their contributions. A baptism by fire makes the steel stronger. Plus, they're getting off light by not having to brave the fire of Ziya. :)

Comment: J. Ambrose Little (Mar 31, 2009)

I actually tend to agree with Dave Gray.

That said, I do wish more of the new folks like me would actually speak up in these discussions. It's an open forum, not a panel--you don't need to be a wizened expert to have something valuable to say.

Comment: Russell Wilson (Apr 1, 2009)

Great article Lou. And I would also second many of Jay's comments above... I've been doing interaction/user interface design since (gulp) 1990. It involved aspects of IA/UX/IX, etc, but no one used those terms. It was all called "UI".

Comment: Fred Sampson (Apr 1, 2009)


Well said. As a certifiable old fart, I'm still relatively new to this field--whatever field it is that I'm in. And I'd much rather promote UX to the world at large than wrangle over titles and definitions. If UXnet can help that goal, well hey I'm already on board.

BTW, I really don't know what it is with that first-initial-middle-name thing. . .

-W. Frederick Sampson

Comment: swiss (Apr 1, 2009)

hi....it's not a question of how long you've been around and in the domain.

There are *many* of us who've been around since the beginning. Think back to the early IA Summits. Did you know literally **everyone** there? do you know where they are now? Or are you talking about a self-selective group of people with similar personal and professional ambition? In any field there are people whose goal is to be a "name," a celebrity, or simply a thought leader. There are people whose livelihoods hinge on their opinions writ large, as capital, and who declare their opinion loudly and adamantly as The Truth.

Then there are other people (some of whom are as capable, sharp, creative, interesting as the people who muscle to the top because, for them, doing so is a value to them) who do not want or seek the national or international limelight. Who don't want a stage, or to decree what will be what. There are people who tend to avoid vying to be part of an "expert" group -- because of such groups' [that word you misspelled long ago] sense of "privilege" and elitism, and hierarchy, and exclusion, and self-promotion, and skewed sense of being a meritocracy. And that's been the case with our allied professions, for sure. A smugness, elitism, sense of superiority, as well as an increasingly snarky tone to outsiders.

Some people are motivated by the above to become "part" of such a group -- because if it's so elite and people are so snobbish it must be a group worth joining, but I'm the opposite. It's not interesting to me, and doesn't motivate me to be a wannabe follower. I am friends with an know some of the thought leaders, but because (a) they're genuine and treat everyone the same; (b) their primary fascination is with the profession and not with Being Someone in the profession.

I've heard you're a nice guy, and am not picking on you. because this isn't about individuals. And it isn't about the old making way for the new. That's just stupid. Meet the new boss/same as the old boss. It's about creating a completely new sensibility and structure for collaborating and connecting with each other across a complex set on allied professions, without creating self-serving hierarchies for a few, whoever those few may be.

So, of the 98% that aren't the rarified you-guys, don't assume we want to BE you in a structure like the very odd cliquey junior HS structure that now exists. We read your books and hear you speak, but would probably prefer a more low-key populist Joe-10-pak, if you will, community. And seriously, do you really think Joe x-pak could be anything but patronizing?

Comment: Lou (Apr 2, 2009)


Swiss, I wish you'd at least post your comments without the cover of anonymity. They'd certainly have more value that way. And maybe substantiate some of your claims somehow?

Otherwise, these kind of words appear to be nothing more than a conversation-killing whine wrapped inside a rant.

Comment: Dean Karavite (Apr 3, 2009)

I accept the challenge and will lurk no more! I agree with one thing swiss said. Lou is a nice guy! If isolation and obscurity define this 98% then I feel like the .02%, but Lou has been there for every milestone of my off career for ten years+. So, forgive the bio format to follow, but it includes Lou references, an exploration of the world experienced in this 98% idea, and wraps up with an emerging frontier that has endless opportunities for the 100%.

I met Lou in 1997 through his even nicer wife. Lou encouraged my work in accessibility, but I also worked in clinical research and became fascinated with another kind of accessibility, the accessibility of medical data. In 1999 Lou helped me put it all together by as I pursued a masters degree in HCI in his old stomping grounds. I went on to my only mainstream UX experience, working at IBM with fabulous HF and usability people, but little info sci. I asked Lou to give a talk, but he was booked, so we had Peter instead! Soon I missed the complexity of the hospital. Bolstered from emails/calls to Lou I accepted a job managing the information environment of a hospital OR going through the agony of a recently implemented information system. While my UX peers could not understand how I’d apply UX in a hospital, Lou didn’t see it that way at all.

Everyone remembers Louis and Clark, but there was that lonely French trapper out there too. Perhaps personality characteristics are a factor? Top down vs. bottom up, strategic vs. tactical… I love immersing myself in complexity and details in order to discover endless webs of connections and dependencies all representing opportunities. Yet, I struggle to make my “discoveries” understood. I don’t know how to sell my ideas. I talk too fast and write too much. Way too much (see!). I simply cannot think, speak or right in bullet points, not even with PowerPoint. Despite all this, if I apply the explorer idea to my career, I see some parallels. Working with accessibility before there was a web that needed to be accessible. When the world was on a tear organizing content, I was thinking about experiences with data. Now I have five years in UX isolation struggling to improve every aspect of healthcare information technology (HIT).

I have a strong feeling many of the 2% and the 98% are going to be drawn to HIT in the very near future. It is starting now. Perhaps the billions of $ on the table is a factor, but speaking from that “lonely place” you simply have to be. Go to the pioneering days of 1995 and recall the most convoluted and poorly designed site you ever saw. Now imagine that site managing your surgical procedure and hospital stay. Imagine the hospital paid $100,000,000 or more for this and 5700 other US hospitals are being asked to do the same. Now imagine not having to imagine!

When you arrive at the hospital look for us! A very few will have UX training, but others are born naturals (most are not). While you blaze a trail through the C Suite, look for the worn footpaths in the OR, ED and clinics (billing dept. if you dare). When you put on your best shoes to meet the CEO realize our sneakers have been splattered with blood (or worse) as we take time every single day to understand the details of how a hospital functions. We have accumulated years of contextual analysis by studying the hospital from an information based perspective. We can draw dozens of EMR screens from memory. We know the underlying structure of EMR data and how it can or cannot answer important questions. We have gone through the agony of HIT training and have a keen insight into the vendor mindset. Most importantly we can connect all of this to the daily routines of everyone in the hospital.

So, talk the the execs and talk to the docs, but don't forget about us. You work out the strategy and we can tell you how to make it work or why it can’t. However, we can show you big problems and opportunities too and you can help form and deliver the message. We need you, but you need us. Just be sure to acknowledge our contributions and we will have a great time!

P.S. Lou, can you believe I have a new job opportunity. When can you talk? :-)

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