DUX2005: One Person’s Journey

November 21, 2005

People from the UX community came together at DUX2005. I had eagerly awaited this second Conference on Designing for User eXperience, which was held November 2–5 at Fort Mason, in San Francisco, especially since I’d had miss the first DUX Conference in 2003. The conference lived up to my high expectations, providing fun and insight in equal measure. The surprising blue skies and sparkling vistas of the Golden Gate bridge didn’t hurt the experience either.

For me, the insights started with the two tutorials I attended: Layers of Experience, which Marc Rettig taught, and Whose Line Is It Anyway: Improv, Ethnography, and Innovation, which Steve Portigal taught.

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So, Netflix has essentially got me. Why? Not because they’ve created exclusive content. Not because their service is better or their prices are lower. Not because their Web application provides a killer user experience. They’ve got my personal data, my history, my preferences, and my viewing plans for the future. Netflix is essentially plugged into me, taking what is inside my head and using that information to help me enjoy a more robust movie-viewing experience. The content—the movies themselves—has become commodified. The value and differentiation is in the ownership of my personal data.

But this lesson goes so much further and applies in many different contexts.

Thanks to enormous, inexpensive digital-storage capacities, there is no longer any reason for digital media to exist in a physical form. The notion of people physically possessing software applications, video games, or other digital media on compact discs, videotapes, DVDs, cartridges, or other media will become quaint—if not an indulgence. A single device—perhaps the size of a Mac mini or smaller—could hold all of it. And since broadband connections and even wireless connections to centralized networks are becoming faster and more ubiquitous every day, we don’t need physical media to conveniently deliver software or content to people. There is no need to store digital media locally. It can reside on remote storage devices.

Virtual digital media represents a fundamental shift in people’s conceptual model of possessions. We are accustomed to our possessions existing in some tangible way. Now, all we need is a user interface and the right to use or access software or content—a license or user account—not to possess them on physical media. However, from the standpoint of usability, there may still be a preference for certain types of media to continue to exist in a physical form, particularly written content like books or periodicals.

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.

Figure 1—J.Walt Adamczyk’s alien landscape
J.Walt Adamczyk's alien landscape

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.

The presentations varied widely in tone, from relatively academic descriptions of research or problem-solving work to a hilarious send-up of the super-brief five-minute allotment for each presentation by Jared Spool. I personally believe that Spool was making some meta-point about people’s need for humor, as his presentation ostensibly dealt with what users really want. Notable highlights of the panel sessions that left me hungry for more included:

  • a beautiful direct-manipulation interface for selecting diamonds on the Web
  • the need to deliver tools that encode best practices, since nobody follows guidelines
  • the challenges of establishing and measuring concentration, and how to support the creation of desirable states of flow
  • the need to love our target users to succeed—it helps if you think of the user as a human being
  • Stanford’s neat HCI class that uses theater to explicate design problems (Where would I be if I’d discovered this career when I got my bachelor’s degree there a decade ago?)
  • at least four flavors of fun in gaming—just one of which is “easy fun”
  • people’s tendency to become eerily uncomfortable when considering the special needs of the elderly
  • presentations achieved without bullet points rocked the house
  • a presentation achieved without using PowerPoint enthralled the mind—especially when it charmingly dissected the grammar of movement involved in southern Indian coffee-making rituals

The only session that fell flat for me was the invited panel session. Its failure to come alive was noticeable amid the other lively exchanges.

A few of the questions directed at panelists were challenging—the proposition that each design we deliver is more like a death rather a birth especially stands out—but mainly attendees were simply curious and engaged. Since all of the panelists were also attendees of DUX2005, as shown in Figure 2, the person blogging in the auditorium seat next to you might be a panelist. The format invited an active, synthetic engagement with the material, especially since we broke regularly for coffee and lunch breaks, which encouraged conversation and further speculation. With everything else that was going on, though, I must confess that I barely experienced the posters, and unfortunately, I had to miss the closing plenary, because personal interests trumped professional ones.

Figure 2—Blogging at DUX
Blogging  at DUX

Until this conference, I have always identified myself as an interaction designer. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly involved in professional organizations, especially the recently-formalized Interaction Design Association. In Los Angeles and, more recently, in Portland, Oregon, I’ve organized IxDA Face-to-Face gatherings of professionals practicing—or at least interested in—interaction design. After participating in DUX2005, however, I must self-identify as a user experience designer. The scope of my involvement in technology product planning activities is as broad as that of any practitioner I’ve met. Somehow, the user experience designation has broken through the consciousness of corporate management and society at large in a way that interaction design and usability alone have not yet done. Internationally, people working in all of the user experience design disciplines are standing up and asking for recognition more seriously than ever before.

On Friday evening, standing in for the Portland UXnet local ambassador, Bill DeRouchey, who couldn’t attend the conference, I was glad to attend a dinner with UXnet and BayDUX people, some of whom are shown in Figures 3 and 4. The UXnet folks are a remarkably altruistic bunch. They are dedicated to helping the many organizations that serve the interests of UX professionals to cooperate and collaborate with one another. ACM SIGCHI, a sponsoring organization of DUX2005, is one of the largest organizations of the bunch, but ACM SIGGRAPH, AIGA, HFES, IAI, IDSA, IIID, IxDA, STC, and the UPA represent other UX specialties. We’ll need a lot of cooperation and collaboration to achieve unity among this scattered constituency! Coming together in a spirit of amity at events like DUX2005 helps lift all of us up toward our common goals.

Figure 3—UXnet and BayDUX folks at dinner
UXnet and BayDUX folks at dinner
Figure 4—More people from UXnet and BayDUX at dinner
People from UXnet and BayDUX at dinner

Overall, for me the DUX2005 conference was an inspiring event that revealed an extraordinarily consistent set of practical concerns that we UX professionals share, as well as the strong commonalities among the body of best practices we are busily creating. Affording a valuable opportunity for UX professionals to meet and speak with colleagues who they may know only by name or reputation, DUX2005 brought together an open-minded gathering of thoughtful people who are committed to improving the human condition—one silicon-enabled experience at a time. Hope to see you there next time! 

Photographs by Elizabeth Bacon and Keith Instone

Head of Product at Quantas Assure

Portland, Oregon, USA

Elizabeth BaconLiz discovered her calling in 1999, when she joined Cooper as an interaction designer. As a Cooper consultant, she performed ethnographic research, developed personas, and delivered innovative interaction design solutions. She worked on projects in a wide range of domains, from consumer-oriented Web sites to enterprise resource planning systems to blue-sky designs for office telephones. As a supervising/principal designer with a theoretical bent, she also helped advance Cooper’s methodology and practice. From 2002–2006, Liz worked in technology product planning at St. Jude Medical—a Fortune 100 company that develops implantable medical devices for cardiac rhythm management—where she led UX design for complex software systems. Her elegant yet friendly user experiences improved clinicians’ ability to provide good patient care. A resident of Portland, Oregon, Liz is the IxDA Local Coordinator and is active in CHIFOO (ACM SIGCHI). She is also on the IxDA Board of Directors.  Read More

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