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What The User Experience Community Thinks  

:: Monday, December 20, 2004 ::

It's hard to break into the user experience community unless you were born wearing their official T-shirt.

As a usability consultant and reporting "bridge" from the industry to the search engine optimization and marketing industries, I lurk, listen and learn.

Who are these user design people, I often wonder, and why do they sound so angry about their work and each other?

Take The User Experience Community is Thinking Too Big, by OK/Cancel's Kevin Cheng. He is a conference speaker, so one can assume he is a voice of experience and authority in the user design field. He writes about the conflicts between "factions" in the industry, such as usability, information architecture, interaction design, etc. He points to Dirk Knemeyer's Digital Web article, The End of Usability Culture that struck a chord in many people. It either upset them, put them on the defense, or in some cases, confused them even more. Dirk wrote,

"Usability culture has unquestionably made the Web a much more usable place. Given the way the Web generally worked just five years ago, the role of usability and related disciplines to the evolution of the Web was vital. But usability culture has steered the Web development ship long enough."

Coming from a web design and search engine optimization background, I was rather surprised at the hoopla over Dirk's article. You could have just as easily stuck in the word "SEO" for the word "usability" in the statement above. More than a few times I've listened to the complaint that organic search engine optimization techniques destroy creativity, forcefeed search engine algorithms over human usage patterns and place more value on search engine rank than customer service requirements.

Another angle is captured in The User Experience Community to Thinking too Small by Christina Wodtke over at ElegantHack. The battle cry is to quit fighting. She writes, "How small and petty is the community if we even ask questions like "who owns user experience?"

She continues, "It's time for all the usual suspects to stop sniping at their neighbor in the next cube, and start making-- making new products, making new relationships, making new learnings, making new markets, making new ways of business."

Dang it. I didn't realize things were this bad in user design land. Funny how it's not so different from SEO/SEM land, only there they color-code everyone into two groups - White Hat or Black Hat. Labels being what they are (here in America, you're either red or blue, for political affiliation, or pink or blue for your gender, or green if you root for the Phildephia Eagles), the label "user" gives the impression that everyone we're designing for is going to eventually come freeloading from us, make camp on our front porch for a few months, beg for handouts and demand the keys to the car.

I think what unites anyone associated with the planning of a web site is wanting a clear understanding of who will be using it, and how.

SEO's are bound and determined to make sure every page is found by the people it was intended to serve. The science of doing their job changes at every whim of the search engine industry, meaning these folks are worth every penny because they must put in extraordinary hours to stay on top of their game.

Usability industry individuals, who come from all sorts of backgrounds and disciplines, are also pointedly hell-bent on the impact of their projects, whether it's creating a user persona and applying it to design, user testing to gain insight into how people actually move around web sites and web applications, or designer insomniacs who stay up nights trying to figure out and meet the needs of "drop in browsers" and turning this accidental tourist into a new customer.

Back to Kevin Cheng's thoughts from his article, he says, "We're making progress, but we're not at a stage where separation by disciplinary boundaries makes sense. Imagine a small start-up where they can only afford one developer. That developer does the database, the UI programming, the testing, and the backend architecture. No roles are defined beyond development. That's where we are now."

How about the mom and pop, or stay-at-home parent designed and operated web site business? In so many of these cases, it's a one-person show and they set out into the vast nightmare called Internet Sales, hoping to earn enough money for spagetti, let alone someone to tell them their user interface looks like something Harold drew with his Purple Crayon or the content is straight out of the $120 online marketing ebook they got snuckered into buying.

Making ourselves unaffordable and unavailable to these folks is typical. I've been reminded that I'm sometimes un-understandable too. When someone sees "Accessibility", it could mean trying to find a cab in Manhatten or a teacher making themselves accessible to their students. "UX" looks like something my kids use in their IM discussions with friends, like POS (Parent Over Shoulder.)

Someone named "Dave" wrote in the Comments section of Cheng's article, "Our biggest problem in the UX world is unclear definitions. We have them amongst ourselves and we have them when we talk to our customers. Whenever words are used for both the specific and the general we add to the confusion surrounding our disciplines."

Yep. So, what does the User Experience community think? I think they all bring to the table something of value, and like their friends in the SEO/SEM industry, struggle to communicate this value to the owners of web site and software properties. But, I'm afraid many in both camps set themselves apart into some sort of elite group, separated by their color coded hats, college degrees and titles on their office doors.

And what a shame this is. Because when you get a bunch of folks with various backgrounds and experiences, wearing different colors and having tons of ideas about what's right for the design, or not, you get the truest, most accurate glimpse into the humans we're all working for.

:: posted by Kim Krause Berg on 12/20/2004 03:44:30 PM

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