Marc Rettig’s focus was on the different aspects of people’s experiences that we can study through ethnographic research. These aspects of experience included activities, environments, objects, people and their relationships, and interactions. Opening your mind to understanding people’s true goals exposes the key elements of an experience and reveals those “dimensions of meaningful variation” that let you produce a properly tailored design for a product that truly fits its target audience.
One curious thought I had at the end of Marc’s tutorial was whether it is possible that someday we might reach the point where our superb understanding of people—that is, the UX designer’s deep understanding of target users—would let us deliver a single, optimal experience for each category of product, service, or experience. Would different sets of highly trained ethnographic researchers focusing on the same subject deliver the same set of insights, leading to the same set of design solutions? If so, how could we avoid creating a homogenized, monopolistic universe filled with “idealized” experiences? Would we use corporate concepts of brand and ephemeral ideas of quality to differentiate our solutions? This possible future merits further thought—or perhaps I should read less science fiction before bedtime.
Steve Portigal’s tutorial brought the fun to bear, taking a more esoteric approach to the performance of ethnographic research by discussing improvisation techniques. Improv is more than a form of comedy. Common in theater training, improvisation is a group activity that emphasizes spontaneity within a clearly defined set of rules. Steve quickly pushed the class into improv exercises. For the first one, eight of us stood in a line at the front of the room and began to tell a story involving the randomly elicited dog walker and blender. We each spoke a single word when our turns came, developing the story together, one word at a time. I was soon stammering “noodles” when my turn came and blushing along with my fellow participants in discomfort at the oddity of this experience.
After more immersive improv exercises, Steve helped put the concepts together for the class. Successful improv involves taking an idea thrown to you by another participant and turning it into something else—something greater and maybe even something funny—and then tossing that idea along to the next participant. Improv is a group activity wherein listening is essential. Also, as in ethnographic research, experiencing empathy for your fellows is an essential key to gleaning and processing information. We can’t move from an analytical, or etic, point of view to an internalized, or emic, perspective that interprets the true meaning of things without engaging our hearts, minds, and bodies in the activity.
I was struck by the focus of participants’ questions toward the end of the tutorial, which turned upon whether ethnographers bring bias into their research and whether we can validate the work of ethnographers. I personally believe that the ethnographer—cum designer, anyway—must bring bias into the research work, in order to guide the activity toward the extraction of essential information from research subjects. I also think that ethnographic research gets validated by the analysis and synthesis that follows, which should either yield new, helpful insights or confirm existing insights. All in all, however, the group’s questions made me think that we’re a long way from understanding other people so well that we’re in any danger of living in some brave new world.
Because the tutorials and Studio Tours occurred on the same day, I unfortunately missed touring the local design studio offices. However, whether conference attendees attended tutorials, visited San Francisco design studios, or attended only the DUX Conference itself, Thursday evening was time for DUX2005 proper to begin. More than 400 attendees gathered in the Cowell Theater for the opening plenary. (DUX2005 organizers had deliberately limited registration, and it was a sold-out event.)
J.Walt Adamczyk gave an extraordinary live-animation performance, shown in Figure 1. He conjured giant alien plants from nothing, bringing to life a desert landscape with flicks of his pen on a Wacom tablet, tweaks on a sound board, and swirls of a joystick. This phenomenal and unique performance set a suitably creative tone for the opening plenary speaker, Tony award-winning actor Bill Irwin.
To the crowd’s amazement, Irwin performed and dissected a classic “baggy-pants” shtick, demonstrating his sheer mastery over the language of the body. Pulling his head down into his shoulders or dropping his knees over his ankles or spinning his limbs around his body in a rolling dance to the quirky sounds of Peaches, Irwin evoked clown characters that told sad and funny stories. His amusingly self-deprecating presentation spoke to the variety of human experience as well as to our common humanity. My jaw really hit the floor during his performance of #11 of Samuel Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing.” Beckett’s stuttering characters and their vainly striving language always give me a visceral charge, making me feel more empty and more full at the same time. I am still wondering if Irwin performed it as the opposite of shtick, with its idiosyncratic, poetic rhythms, or as the epitome of shtick, with the funny familiarity of one’s own stream of unconsciousness.
Thursday evening concluded with a buffet dinner reception sponsored by BayDUX, where I got a chance to talk one-on-one with some of the fascinating people in the field of user experience that I’ve met over the past few years—not to mention many I’d met that very day. Friday evening also concluded with a social gathering, at the 111 Minna Gallery in the South of Market district of San Francisco. Unfortunately, the extreme volume of the music and limited space made this event more an awkward crush than a true socializing opportunity.
Friday and Saturday, the unique format of the DUX2005 conference gathered all attendees in the Cowell Theater for 90-minute panel sessions, during which participants presented the papers that the Program Chairs had accepted. These sessions were more or less loosely organized around these themes: “User-Steered Content,” “Common Sense and Reason,” “Design Education,” “PG13—Designing Games,” “Out in the World—Experiences Beyond the Desktop,” and “Harnessing User Needs and Insights.” Following brief presentations from each of a session’s three to seven participants, volunteers roved the auditorium with microphones to solicit questions.