Another Perspective on DUX2005

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: November 21, 2005

“The DUX Conference began brilliantly with an interactive performance by J.Walt Adamczyk and an opening plenary address by Bill Irwin. J.Walt’s live animation performance … took us on an odyssey following a convoluted path through an evolving 3D landscape.”

Everyone I spoke with at DUX seemed pleased by the quality and diversity of the tutorials presented on Day 1 of DUX2005. I really wanted to attend the Studio Tours that day, but was too busy launching this Web magazine, so missed them. Maybe next time…

The DUX Conference began brilliantly with an interactive performance by J.Walt Adamczyk and an opening plenary address by Bill Irwin. Beautiful ambient music accompanied J.Walt’s live animation performance. He took us on an odyssey following a convoluted path through an evolving 3D landscape. It was mesmerizing. Next came Bill Irwin’s performance, which was both very amusing and highly educational. Irwin, shown in Figure 2, is an actor, dancer, and clown who has made body language both an art and a science. He’s a wonderful, versatile performer, and I enjoyed his performance immensely. Comedienne Heather Gold hosted the entire conference and added just the right amount of levity to the proceedings.

Following the opening plenary, a reception sponsored by BayDUX and its participating organizations concluded the events of World Usability Day around the world and provided a great opportunity for everyone attending DUX to get together and talk. The hall in which the reception took place was too small to accommodate everyone, so the overflow crowd was in a tent, shown in Figure 1, that was buffeted by a chill wind carrying a spray of raindrops. (Thanks Yahoo! for those umbrellas all attendees received! They came in handy.) The great company made up for being a bit cold, and it was wonderful to be part of this World Usability Day celebration.

Figure 1—The opening reception

Opening reception

The opening plenary set a standard of creativity that was difficult to uphold. The conference sessions on Days 2 and 3 of DUX comprised panels of speakers, each of whom had only five or six minutes to present papers covering often disparate topics. The emphasis was more on ethnography than design and on the practical techniques with which most people are already familiar rather than on envisioning new paradigms. Presentations ranged from great to ho-hum. Some speakers were very engaging and used their minutes effectively, making one wish they had more time; others were boring and seemed to go on interminably. The organizers of this event tried to cram too much content into too little time. As a consequence, coverage of topics was generally superficial, and there were few insights or revelations that might have stimulated thinking among the cognoscenti. I would have preferred to have heard the best speakers—for instance, the very amusing Jared Spool—talk for half an hour and read the rest of the papers on the “Proceedings” CD-ROM. Discussions with many other attendees both during and following DUX echoed this viewpoint.

Figure 2—Bill Irwin at the opening reception

Bill Irwin

While there’s not a bad seat in the house at the Cowell Theater, there is nowhere comfortable to sit and talk or eat outside the theater—just long, cold, concrete hallways. San Francisco weather was at its most beautiful on Days 2 and 3 of DUX, so it felt good to spend some time outdoors when the conference broke for lunch. Fluffy clouds dotted bright blue skies and fresh breezes created whitecaps on the bay. I completely missed the poster sessions, which took place at lunchtime, when there seemed always to be conflicting events.

Though it took place at the very cool 111 Minna Gallery, the DUXBash was a bust. The art on exhibit was eclectic and interesting, and many enjoyed the gallery experience. However, while the blaring music made talking very difficult, it didn’t inspire many to dance. The DJ wasn’t right for the crowd. Since there are two rooms at the Gallery, it would have been so easy to disconnect the speakers in the bar, where people gathered to try to talk. There were a lot of people with hoarse voices the next day.

“There’s a tendency on designers’ part to think that a well-designed world would be a perfect world, but great design can embody and promote the greatest social ideals.”—Edward Tenner

Edward Tenner, author of the book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, delivered the closing plenary. Considering he read from a prepared text, his talk was surprisingly engaging. His presentation focused on the progress of industrial design since the late 19th century. Heather Gold interviewed Tenner following his talk. I couldn’t helping wishing that someone with great interviewer/moderator skills who actually works in UX—like Richard Anderson or Aaron Marcus—had taken on that role. Throughout DUX, I’d wanted to hear people talk about visionary design and innovation, and Tenner delivered. He left us with some great thoughts to take away from DUX:

  • On innovation—“Innovation promotes unwelcome surprises, but also positive unintended consequences. … How do we make positive unintended consequences happen? … Design for unintended consequences by creating new opportunities for modification and innovation.”
  • On design idealism—“There’s a tendency on designers’ part to think that a well-designed world would be a perfect world, but great design can embody and promote the greatest social ideals.”
  • On intuition—“In a great client, there has to be a certain degree of irrationality. … Money is not the focus from the beginning. … [People like Steve Jobs] are intuitively brilliant. My sympathies lie with the intuitive person who hits on something users will love.”
  • On industrial-strength Zen—“When people calculate too much, they can close themselves to unintended consequences.”

The DUX Conference attracts just the right mix of people, representing the diversity of UX professionals. With a format that encourages interaction and dialogue among attendees, DUX provides a great opportunity for meeting professional colleagues and online acquaintances face to face. Kudos to the organizers of DUX for the many things they’re doing well. Next time, I hope they’ll tweak the format of the conference sessions to allow presenters to explore their topics in more depth. DUX is definitely a worthwhile and unique conference.

Photographs by Keith Instone

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