Thursday, September 15, 2005

The case for case studies (and DUX 2005)

Several people have made the case for case studies over recent years. Among them is Dennis Wixon, who in the July+August 2003 issue of interactions argued that the current research literature largely fails the practitioner:
"If our discipline is serious about public discussion of methods as they are applied in industry, we will move to ... a broad-based case study approach, examining outcomes that are relevant to both practice and business. Our relevance as a discipline and our career success as practitioners depend on such a change."
The current editors of interactions say more in the July+August 2005 issue:
"Case studies are important; they're readable, they're engaging, they reflect on the same issues you do, and sometimes they present an approach that is so gloriously and confoundedly obvious you'll wonder why you didn't think of that. They also emphasize best practices. But don't take our word for it. Nancy Frishberg, one of the DUX 2005 program chairs said recently about case studies:

'The case study format encourages more interplay between the images and words, because of the extended length (compared with some other conferences including CHI). It also helps remind practitioners that learnings from projects are worth recording and sharing whether they count those projects as unvarnished successes or not.'

...The good news is there is an excellent conference where practitioners share best practices: DUX 2005 ( We encourage all practitioners to consider attending DUX 2005 at Fort Mason in San Francisco this November. The program consists of Design Case Studies, Design Practice Studies (less focus on evidence, more on process), Design Research Studies (evidence through research that provide guidance or prediction of results), and Sketches (work in progress)."
More details of the DUX 2005 program have been appearing recently on the DUX 2005 conference website. Among them is a listing of ~60 agency, industry and academic case studies, research studies, practice studies, sketches and posters, from diverse cultural geographies, spanning a broad range of design exploration. Tutorial details are also there, as I referenced in an earlier blog entry. To come are more details about the opening and closing plenary sessions, studio tours, and an assortment of special events. (As I've been posting to various mailing lists today: though not described on the website as yet, the opening plenary session will feature 2005 Tony Award-winning actor and MacArthur Award recipient Bill Irwin, comedian and performer Heather Gold, interactive artist J.Walt Adamczyk, and special recognition of World Usability Day.)

So, if you are a user experience practitioner, give serious thought to spending your 3-5 November 2005 at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. (And register soon. Early registration rates expire 1 October, and we do expect a sellout.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Is "user" the best word?

One day when I was head of the User Research & Experience Strategy discipline at Studio Archetype and Sapient, a marketing strategist burst into my office eager to share an idea. "Your people shouldn't do only 'user' research," he exclaimed, "You should also do 'non-user' research! You should be investigating why people aren't users. And even for those who are users, you should be exploring what they do when they aren't users that has an impact on what they do as users."

"We already do all that -- and more," I responded, rather surprised to hear that he thought we didn't.

"But then why do you call it, 'User' Research?" he asked.

Wow -- the power of words. Even though he had been involved in some of our work prior to this conversation, the label of the discipline excessively constrained what he thought we did.

Hence, I'm sure my use of the word "user" in my tag line of "Changing the Role 'User Experience' Plays in Your Business" also excessively constrains what some people think I mean. Aware of that, I do place the words "user experience" in quotes; however, I doubt that does much to eliminate misunderstanding.

When I was at Viant, another marketing person argued that I should use the words "customer experience" instead of "user experience" when I talked about this stuff. Indeed, it was the "Experience Center" I started at Viant, shedding both of the problematic first words. (I'm sure you know the arguments against the use of "customer" in this context, though a great many use that term instead.)

The word "user" has taken abit of a beating over the years in the context of the label "user-centered design." "Usage," "experience," "performance," "human," "customer," "activity," and "value" have been among the words advocated as replacements (resulting in "usage-centered design," "experience-centered design," etc.), with "-centered" also being tossed by some in favor of "scenario-based," "contextual," "task-oriented," "goal-directed," "culture-based," or "experience" (resulting in "scenario-based design," "contextual design," etc.), among others.

The alleged value of these alternatives varies. For example, in the Winter 2002 issue of "User Experience," a former student of mine, Hunter Whitney, and a co-author bemoan how "user-centered design" is nothing but "usability-centered design" to many people; that is, design is often inappropriately framed in terms of efficiency and ease-of-use rather than the total experience. So, they advocate the following:
"...begin to think of and talk about our customers and users as people who have needs for status, esteem, a sense of belonging, love and, of course, usability. Users need to complete tasks. People need to feel needed. Approach what you do from a person-centered perspective. Replace user with person in your research and design vocabulary and you'll be amazed at the change in your and your team's thinking. Yes, it is just a change of a word, but it can have an immediate impact on your team and the groups they influence."
Don Norman more recently joined the fray by advocating for "activity-centered design" in the July+August 2005 issue of interactions.

Yet, the word "user" hangs on strongly. Hence, we continue to use it in the title of the conference I co-chair: Designing for User eXperience (DUX) 2005. And it remains a part of the label of UXnet (the User eXperience network), for which I am an Executive Council member.

In the UXnet website FAQ, we include the following:
"Why use the label User Experience?
We know that some people object to 'user experience' because:
  • they don't like the word 'user,'
  • or they don't like the word 'experience,'
  • or they don't think you can design an experience.
Despite all this, we chose it for our umbrella term because:
  • it's in common usage and reasonably well understood
  • it is neutral - and used by all the communities in one form or another, and
  • we had to call it something!"
So, is "user" the best word? Is "user experience" the best label? Well...