DUX 2005 & Design Vision

by November 7, 2005

I walked away from the Designing for User Experience Conference (DUX 05) in San Francisco November 4-5th with the sense that User Experience Design, its methodologies, and terminology are now well established within many companies. There was a large amount of consistency across a wide range of speakers: they did ethnographic studies, they made wireframes, they ran usability tests, they had interaction designers in house, and so on down the line.

It was also pretty clear which terms emerged as winners from the digital design nomenclature debates of years past: information architecture, interaction design, usability, and user experience. (I personally still adhere to interface design and luckily am not alone).

Unfortunately, the consistency between speakers, practices, and outcomes, amounted to a lot of repetition. Many speakers would describe a familiar process that netted them an incremental efficiency improvement. “We raised customer satisfaction scores by 10%.” “We reduced a complicated registration process from 8 screens to 6.”

Part of this could be the result of the conference format. Each session consisted of 5-8 minute presentations from about 8 presenters in a room packed with 400 conference attendees. As a result, many presenters gave a high-level overview of their work rather than diving into details. There may have been a lot of gems hidden deeper within each presenter’s content, but the overview their time constraints forced them to give made everything sound all too familiar.

What was missing for me were the “big ideas” that leapfrogged existing processes and broke new ground in digital product design. The role of a strong design lead with a product vision was only mentioned at the tail end of the closing plenary by Dr. Edward Tenner and in compelling hallway conversations in between sessions. Dr. Tenner mused upon the role of the intuitively brilliant solutions of designers worked “from the gut” often without adequate research or prototyping. Greg Petroff described this as a savant-driven vs. process driven design and noted that both can get you to the same place in a product design, but the savant “system” might get you there faster.

The role of a strong design lead was so eloquently voiced by Jim Leftwich on the Interaction Design Association list a while back that I feel obligated to repeat it here:

“I have always believed in the speed, breadth of integrative power, and just sheer purity that a single strong design lead can bring to a problem. I'd qualify that further in saying that similarly strong leads in all the necessary aspects of product or system development (that understand the value of the others - i.e.: engineering, business, etc.) is even more powerful, but in my long career, fairly rare. What separates truly extraordinary and transcendent products or systems from the merely adequate (I won't even talk about poor efforts) is vision."

"Until such time that the communication and coordination between ‘separate minds’ can reach the speed and integration of neurons within a single mind with vision and experience, the latter will always be capable of creating and ‘inspired’ solution."

"Now this doesn't by any means insure larger business success, because there are many extenuating and complex forces at play in the product world. It also doesn't imply that such a leader is always ‘right’, but in the long term, and especially when it comes to significant or revolutionary ‘innovation’ (as opposed to the overwhelming majority of development that is merely "me too" or evolutionary feature creep), a design leader with vision will very often drive a product or system to greater and more successful heights.”

The difference between Jim’s description of design and a process like that presented by CapGemini at DUX can be gleaned simply by looking at the difference in presentation titles:

  • Cap Gemini presentation: Moving GM to #1 in Online Customer Satisfaction: Techniques for Conducting Quantitative Benchmarking Across Hundreds of Web Sites and for Prioritizing Functionality Based on User Needs in Differing Geographies and Markets
  • James Leftwich presentation (from the 2005 IA Summit): The IA of Things: Twenty Years Of Lessons Learned

Personally I overwhelmingly feel “design vision” will be increasingly important as the tools for production advance. The time and effort required to develop an application online is continually decreasing. This is evidenced not only by the huge influx of Web 2.0 companies but also by companies like Ning that allow users to build their own social applications.

As personal fabrication systems enter offices and homes and cheap manufacturing can be more easily outsourced to countries like China, product development will be accessible to more and more people. As a result, incremental improvements and feature creep will no longer suffice. Product development will be a process of leapfrogging existing designs with disruptive ideas. This is already happening in the market today, but only big businesses are playing ball. Soon we’ll all have a more equal opportunity and strong design vision will be one of the core skill sets that differentiate the incremental from the extraordinary.

All that said, there were a number of presentations at DUX that made great use of established user experience practices. IDEO, Amazon, Viant, and more highlighted how the right process can yield compelling results. To Greg’s point earlier, it might just be a question of when and how.

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