The State of the UX Community

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
June 23, 2008

“An organization’s reason for being, like that of any organism, is to help the parts that are in relationship to each other, to be able to deal with change in the environment.”—Kevin Kelly

Over the past three decades of computer/human interaction, we’ve seen digital technology evolve from a curiosity to a convenience to an integral part of our everyday lives. For UX professionals, the demand for our skill sets and the opportunities to practice seem only to grow, whether we be designers or developers, usability specialists or information architects, working in fields as diverse as Web, mobile, desktop, and embedded software systems. The UX professions are at a stage that could very well be a tipping point—where the rapid rise of digital devices, services, and connectivity converge to create a massive need for UX professionals. The mobile space alone could generate demand that we can only begin to imagine.

As the need for UX professionals grows and our fields evolve, so too does the nature of our professional community. With an increased demand for our services comes a pressing need to advocate for our profession’s business value and secure a strategic role for UX, train and mentor new practitioners, exchange knowledge among peers, and find ways to positively affect our society.

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The Alphabet Soup: Too Many UX Groups?

UX practitioners have numerous options for getting involved in our professional community. For those who define the interactions, behaviors, and workflows of digital products, there’s the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). The Information Architecture Institute (IAI) serves those who structure digital information spaces such as Web sites and intranets. For those involved in usability, user research, and analysis, there are the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). The visual design community has AIGA, which was formerly known as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, but now touts itself as the Professional Association for Design. AIGA was a sponsoring organization of the Design for User Experience (DUX) conferences in 2003, 2005, and 2007. One of the oldest and most well-established groups is ACM SIGCHI, the Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction. While ACM has been around since 1947, the CHI Special Interest Group was created in 1982. And, recognizing the need to facilitate conversations and collaboration between all of these professional groups and associations, both nationally and internationally, UXnet launched in 2004. This is just a sampling of some of the best-known organizations. There are others.

Local groups exist as well. For example, in the Boston area where I live, there are bi-monthly meetings of the Web Innovators Group, where startups demo their new technology for peers and interested venture capitalists. There are also general-interest tech organizations like the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange (MITX), and the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. If you are interested in connecting with your peers and learning in an informal setting, a local BarCamp or Meetup may be for you.

All of these organizations compete with each other—whether directly or indirectly—for the attention, volunteer time, and resources UX professionals have to offer. If you’re actively involved in the UX community, it’s easy to feel pulled in too many directions at once.

At the Boston UPA Conference 2008: Usability and User Experience, held in May at Bentley College, the panel “Critical Conversations About UCD: Challenging Assumptions, Fondly Held Beliefs, and Common Practices discussed the topic of divergent professional associations with the audience, asking the question, “Does this wide array of organizations inhibit our ability to advocate our professions’ business value?” From the session description:

“Those of us who have been in the field for several decades see splintering into more and more specialized (and insular) societies, conferences, and languages. We keep coming up with more and more titles to describe what we do, and rediscovering concepts that have been around instead of innovating beyond them. We are splintering into sub-groups who debate the meaning of design or usability endlessly instead of working together to build a shared understanding of the extensive body of knowledge the profession has amassed over the past several decades and come up with a way to clearly explain our value to outsiders.”

Panelist James McElroy noted that the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), which formed from several smaller groups in 1965, does an admirable job of advocating for the business value of the profession. For instance, their annual International Design Excellence Awards were featured in BusinessWeek magazine. Figure 1 shows some information about the awards on the IDSA Web site.

Figure 1—The IDEA Awards showcase the work of IDSA members
IDEA Awards showcase the work of IDSA members

While it seems extremely unlikely all of these user experience groups and associations will simply converge—into say the United Digital Workers or the UX Union—would we be better off professionally if they did?

At present, it seems we are at a stage in the evolution of the UX professions when the existence of many groups may be a necessity—despite the difficulties in coordinating between them or the dearth of available volunteer time. The UX community may not be ready to join together under one umbrella. A look back at the history of the various industrial design associations that were the predecessors of IDSA shows a similar evolution, beginning in 1927 when groups like the National Furniture Designers Council (NFDC), the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), and the Industrial Design Education Association (IDEA) were active.

The current slate of UX groups is fulfilling different needs that a larger organization might neglect—needs whose satisfaction might require an organization to refracture itself into Special Interest Groups anyway. Some organizations like UPA are concerned with building public awareness of their field. Others like SIGCHI—which, along with its sibling, SIGGRAPH, has a life that is far more vigorous than the parent organization in which it is merely a special interest group—are more inwardly focused, providing a forum for professional discussion and development. UXnet is a central aggregation point for news of the field. The Web Innovators Group focuses on business development and networking. For a group like IxDA, a consolidation of UX organizations would be anathema, because its members have, for several years, been fighting to get their design role recognized as being distinct from other types of design.

As the history of IDSA shows, perhaps we are, indeed, simply in the early, fractured phase of an inevitable convergence. But if so, it seems the big consolidation is not yet upon us, and perhaps still more specialization will occur before it arrives.

The Rise of the Virtual Organization

Divergence or convergence aside, however, in the process of considering this question, it’s also worth noting: The nature of professional organizations is changing in significant ways.

While the industrial revolution brought people together to work in factories and live in cities, the information revolution has allowed people to do the opposite—to work together, though geographically separated, on distributed teams. For knowledge workers, UX practitioners, and researchers, our professional organizations increasingly reflect this new reality.

Some of our organizations operate almost entirely in cyberspace. For example, a mailing-list community constitutes the most active core of IxDA and has thousands of members. This discussion group, which is also accessible via the organization’s Web site, shown in Figure 2, covers a variety of topics from software tools to design patterns and techniques to education to jobs to industry news. While IxDA held its first international Interaction conference in Savannah, Georgia, in February 2008, and has numerous local gatherings in cities from New York to Mumbai to Manila, it’s arguable that we find much of the day-to-day value of IxDA in its virtual community. In fact, IxDA organizers made a special effort to post videos of the conference online to share with members who couldn’t make the trip to Savannah.

Figure 2—IxDA posted videos of its first conference
IxDA posted videos of its first conference

Given that a majority of UX work happens in the virtual space, it’s fitting that UX organizations use the Web, email, and other electronic means of communication, not just to support their offline activities, but to build their memberships and create virtual environments that give their members a sense of place and belonging. A virtual organization may be the perfect format for professional associations, saving overhead costs, while facilitating interaction among their memberships.

Creative Workers, Community, and Service

In The Rise of the Creative Class, author and sociologist Richard Florida examines the growth of knowledge workers, their economic importance, their lifestyles, and their work-styles within the context of the cities in which they live. Florida’s hypothesis is that Creative Class professionals cluster in cities where amenities such as universities, arts, tolerance for different lifestyles, and access to outdoor activities are present. UX practitioners live squarely within the Creative Class camp.

Florida explains that, as creative professionals, we are developing more loose connections with other people—interacting with them on only a semi-regular basis—and fewer strong ones. We know people’s names and faces, their work and reputation. We may even have worked with them at some point in a professional or volunteer capacity or had an interesting discussion with them at a conference or networking event. The way we work is changing, which directly affects our communities and society. On this topic, Florida commented:

“One thing, however, is certain: We cannot hope to sustain a strong Creative Economy in a fractured and incoherent society. Thus our economic and social challenges are inextricably intertwined. ... The key is to create new mechanisms for building social cohesion in an era defined by diversity, high rates of mobility, weak ties, and contingent commitments.”

Such “weak ties and contingent commitments” are a feature of many UX groups. People in our field are often geographically dispersed. Many work in physical isolation from their virtual teammates. So, while this isolation has caused UX professionals to seek more social interaction with their peers—a need that, in the old days, meetings of labor unions or a single monolithic trade organization might have fulfilled—the nature of our creative world has also made strong commitments to a professional group difficult to maintain. In a field in which many people never know how late their workday will go or what city they will be in on a given day, how can anyone commit to attending meetings at a particular location, at the same time of day, on the same day every week or even every month?

Since UX professionals have limited free time and uncertain schedules, UX organizations have had to reduce their demands on potential members and accept a more come-and-go-as-you-please attitude. People go to networking functions when they’re looking for work—or looking to hire—and skip them when they’re fully engaged. They attend an organization’s meetings only when a particular topic or speaker of interest comes up. They contribute comments or just lurk on discussion boards as their time permits. And they volunteer to work on perhaps a single initiative of their professional group each year, scattering their hours of labor over many months or getting everything done in a two-day burst of effort between their work’s project deadlines.

When so many UX professionals continually switch between overlapping communications and social networking technologies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, IM, SMS, email, Skype, Flickr, YouTube,, Digg, and on and on, should it be any wonder that we treat our professional organizations in the same manner? Rather than mourn the fractured nature of our professional communities, perhaps we should embrace their innovation, their faceted nature, and the varying benefits they offer, in the same way we embrace the chaos of our industry’s ever-changing digital tools. If people in the Creative Class wanted a single, monolithic answer to all of our diverse needs, we wouldn’t have invented the modern digital world. We would have been happy with Ma Bell.

A Larger Mission for User Experience Organizations

The proliferation of UX groups—and, as anyone who has attended an event in the past year can attest, their booming participation rates—demonstrates the vitality of our professional organizations at a time when traditional civic groups are struggling to maintain membership. The Lions Club, Kiwanis, and other service groups are shrinking in size. At the same time, members of the Creative Class are looking for new ways to connect with each other and give back to their communities. While our professional groups are not yet truly public service organizations, this seems like a goal worth pursuing. And, as UX professionals, there are tremendously interesting problems for us to solve. Might the diversity of professional organizations in the UX community be a harbinger of an altogether different concept of what an association is?

What problems could we solve? We could support designing for the 90% of the world in need of better technology and opportunities, as with the One Laptop Per Child program. We could turn our attention to the looming energy crisis or search out opportunities to bring a better user experience to our healthcare system.

The increasingly diverse nature of our professional groups is a natural evolution, as creative workers seek to interact with each other in new ways. While it would be easy to condemn the current proliferation of associations as a splintering of the UX community into competing pieces that block our progress, these associations are developing and growing within the greater context of broad changes in the way we work. We may need to alter our old definitions of professional organizations as our associations become increasingly virtual and we search for ways to support each other for the good of the UX community and society as a whole. 

Principal at Involution Studios

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt Invo, Jon leads the firm’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED. Author of four books, Jon edited Designing for Emerging Technologies for O’Reilly Media, in 2014. The book offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may look like for rapidly developing technologies—from genomics to nano printers to workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. In addition to writing about technology, Jon has co-authored a series of alt culture books on UFOs and millennial madness. Scholastic will publish Jon’s forthcoming science fiction novel, Marvin and the Moths, in 2016.  Read More

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