The Great UX Debate continues (in my head): post-Interaction 13 thoughts

great-ux-debate-interaction-13-conferenceMy mind is still buzzing from four days at IxDA’s Interaction 13 conference, a big gathering of design and user experience professionals that happened to be in Toronto this year. The Great UX Debate took place on Thursday morning, and here I am on Sunday, still debating in my head. I think the debate is sticking with me because the panelists didn’t quite manage to articulate some of my concerns with the issues under discussion. Here’s what’s lingering in my mind for each of the three debate topics.

As designers, are we responsible for the effects we have on people’s behaviors from the things we create?

The examples cited in response to this question struck me as way too grandiose. Were the inventors of the car responsible for urban sprawl? Is the availability of text messaging on phones responsible for the decline of direct personal interaction? Someone even mentioned Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. Come on, guys – those technological changes were not the work of designers, unless you’re stretching the category of “designer” to include engineers, inventors, scientists, industry, government, society as a whole. Panelist Teresa Brazen injected some much-needed humility by pointing out (in reference to the Arab Spring), “Twitter didn’t cause a revolution. People did.”

I would have loved to hear a discussion of this question at a much more micro (and practical) level. How should designers respond when asked to use their skills for EVIL – i.e. to drive behaviour that may benefit the business but is not in the best interest of the users? The example I had in mind was this: you’re the interaction designer for a web platform that wants its users to stay logged in, so your boss tells you to make it harder to find the Sign Out link. What’s your responsibility (to your employer, to your users), and how should you handle the situation? To me, this would have been a much more interesting and relevant topic for debate, and would also have reflected a humbler and more realistic view of the role of designers in the world.

Can we really create “connected experiences” across so many devices & networks, or is it just a fool’s errand?

This didn’t ignite much debate among the panelists. Everyone’s response was: we can do it, we must do it, and if you don’t do it, panelist Angel Anderson is “going to eat your lunch.” The most interesting comment came from an audience member who tried to explain why some in the audience had raised their hands to vote for the “fool’s errand” side. (I didn’t catch her name, and I had some initial trouble hearing her, so I’m not sure where she works. (Was it government? Anyone know?) She was speaking on behalf of those of us who work inside large organizations, where user experience is not central to the culture, the pace of change is slow, legacy systems add complexity, and our work brings us up against wicked problems. While I appreciated the ambition and confidence of the panelists, I was glad to hear a reality check from someone who, like me, has basic unsolved problems that put “the connected experience” out of reach for now.

Which do you believe most? 1. Stakeholders need to slow down. 2. UXers needs to speed up.

Again, the panelists were unanimous: of course UXers need to speed up, because the pace of change isn’t slowing down. In this case, I think the question didn’t quite succeed in framing the real problem. In my experience, design and development teams struggle with stakeholders who fail to think strategically – who either hop from trend to trend (“We need podcasts.” “Forget podcasts, we need to be on Pinterest.”) or who choose to ignore a major shift until the organization finds itself in crisis and has to scramble to catch up.

Again, the most insightful comment came from an audience member, who pointed out that what often makes the UX process slow is the need for research – and the reason we have to do so much research is that we haven’t managed to sell ourselves as professionals who can make recommendations based on our experience. We could work more quickly if we could convince stakeholders to trust our judgement and (in some cases) to let us lead.

Overall, the debate crystallized a feeling I had throughout the conference about the gap between the designers who work for cutting-edge companies or elite agencies and the rest of us. The William Gibson quote about the future being unevenly distributed came up in several conference presentations, and I think it applies to the design field as well as to the broader world. Part of the value of attending a conference like Interaction 13 is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the near future. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.

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