UX Cambridge: Adrian Howard, User Experience Does Not Exist

Adrian Howard is a Specialising Generalist. He runs quietstars.com in the SW of England, and tweets as @adrianh.

  •  There is a history lesson about UX we don’t talk about, how UX evolved. Before the late 50s and early 60s, there was no HCI; computers were used in government and large businesses, they were huge things, and it made more sense to optimise the people to use of the computer rather than the other way around. Closest to UX was user research into how people used computers, e.g. time/motion studies.
  • In the 60s-80s: A lot more computers were being used in business; IBM et al were making computers for business, they were being used in telecommunications, etc.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ken Olsen said in 1977. And it was true back then, but they were being used more regularly by actual people in businesses, etc.
  • In the early 80s there were analysts who watched people using computers and tried to work out how to make the processes better.
  • By the late 70s and late 80s, computers went from the province of geeks, to technology-enthused small children having them, to people who just wanted to play games having them. More people were trying to do things like writing letters, balancing finances, playing games, writing computer games.
  • We started seeing more and more things that we would now recognise as UX: paper prototyping, user observation, etc. We had different words for it (“Making things user-friendly” back when the phrase actually meant something and wasn’t just a buzzword).
  • In 1983, Don Norman was the first one to use User Experience Architect (UEA) as a job title. He said he invented the term because user interface was too narrow a definition.
  • Jesse James Garrett released a diagram: The Elements of User Experience – but nobody ever talks about the small-print. It states that “this picture is incomplete” — the diagram doesn’t cover what is missing; the development process and roles involved in UX; it just focuses on key considerations that go into the development of user experience.
  • Job Titles are changing: UX Architect, UX Designer, UX Strategist, UX Champion, etc. Met someone who was an “Experience Modeller”… they didn’t like it either [laughter]
  • Book recommendation: Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger – talks about groups that share a concern or passion about what they do, and learn to do it as they interact regularly. That is what UX is.
  • UX is a Reification – a concept, like UX, The Economy, Hollywood — that we talk about as if they were real things, but they are not things you can grasp and hold; they are a set of concepts. When people start treating the concept as something that is real, odd things start to happen.
  • Treating UX as a thing has good and had aspects. It brings us all together (e.g. at this conference); but also excludes people (we have a strong idea about what is and isn’t UX and spend a lot of time arguing about it).
  • T-Shaped People Lie: the idea of ‘T-shaped skills‘ is a gross over-simplification of where people’s skills and knowledge are. It assumes a depth of knowledge that is independent from domain, and ignores the fact that people can have skills that don’t fall under what their job title might suggest.
  • Roles are not discrete. Don’t define UX; instead think about ‘the things that need to get done’ to build a great product. Pretend you don’t have a job title (“I’m The Designer”) — how do you define/explain yourself to the rest of your organisation? Pretend nobody on your team has a job title; how would that change your conversations? Pretend job title don’t exist at all; what do we have to talk about instead? What values do we have to look for in the people we work with?
  • UX in the future: The expansion of use of computers isn’t stopping, everyone is writing software, the space where software is being used is still expanding very fast; but the UX community isn’t expanding as quickly. Companies are desperately searching for information/people to do UX well. Therefore people outside of our UX community are going to be doing more UX things, e.g. developers.
  • We have models of working that involve people that just do UX work; that’s a model I’m not sure is sustainable. More people are building more software all the time, and there aren’t enough UX professionals.
  • While our community has great things and massively useful knowledge, we are sometimes blinded about how we want to work. We want control. That’s going to hurt us; the fuzzy border around skills that we’ve termed UX doesn’t exist, it’s not a real thing. Unless we start opening up our community and start bringing in the other parts we need to build great user experiences (the things that aren’t on JJG’s diagram) we are going to fade away.
  • We need to start acknowledging the things that are important, and start building a community that can carry on into the 21st century.

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