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Everybody's a Designer. Posted on 09/11/2002.

Check out Jon Udell's column from a week or so ago, discussing Alan Cooper's interaction design methodology and philosophy.

Udell addresses a point that I've always taken issue with, which is Cooper's seemingly arrogant stance that only a chosen few are qualified/suitable for practicing user experience design. That doing this kind of work--understanding what the market needs, how it meets business goals, and designing solutions for digital media--can only properly be done by highly experienced practitioners.

While the highly experienced can doubtless do it better than the average Joe, Cooper's stance seems to ignore the reality that there will always be a far greater need for interaction design (and information architecture, and user research) than there are people who practice it. You can see that with usability, and how usability has moved out of the hands of the exalted few ("human factors" engineers, ergonomists, etc.) and into the hands of folks in the organization.

Similarly, the methods and understandings of interaction design and information architecture need to be disseminated as widely as possible, because the bulk of that work is not going to be done by highly paid consultants, but by middle managers trying to solve immediate problems. This is what has lead to Adaptive Path's "open source" approach for sharing methodology--we want as many people to know what we know. There's a very selfish reason for this--we (the partners) are sick of dealing with bad designs, so anything we can do to generally raise the bar of design practice will, we hope, make our lives easier as well.

I don't want bad designs to proliferate simply because companies can't afford highly-paid consultants. Also, and I think we as user experience designers need to be honest about this, this stuff, as Steve Krug put it, is not rocket surgery. While experience, skill, and talent will lead to better designs, any reasonably competent, intelligent, and observant person can, with some guidance, get much of the way there.

There *will*, of course, be a place for highly-paid consultants--either at big companies, who can afford it, or people seeking innovation, to go beyond standard practice. But, increasingly, I suspect that highly-paid consultants' most crucial role in society will be to take the knowledge gained from their highly-paid work, and share it with as many people as possible, to encourage a base level of competence in our digital designs.

8 comments so far. Add a comment.

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Yet a little learning is a dangerous thing. In the same way that you take issue with Cooper's seemingly dogmatic stance, I also take issue with the idea that "a little usability engineering is better than none."

I disagree. Sometimes, too little is more harmful than none at all. Extending this Nielsen-ish approach to encompass interaction design, a little UE/E (usability engineering or user experience engineering, take your pick) is also a dangerous thing.

We should be mindful of the don't-try-this-at-home-kids warning that Penn & Teller provide. Perhaps we should ensure that software designers either incorporate a UX designer, or that they certify somehow their expertise. Simply buying a book doesn't cut it.
Posted by Joe @ 09/12/2002 07:30 AM PST [link to this comment]

First, I agree with Joe - a sophomoric approach to UX can be worse than none at all. However, it is in the self-interest of companies like Adaptive Path (and Steve Krug's company) to spread the "a little is better than nothing" myth in order to promote their own business...

Second, Cooper takes the opposing stance for the same reason - to promote his business and himself. Of course, Cooper didn't argue it when he was first starting out. He only does so now because it differentiates him from most designers and because people allow him to without questioning Cooper's assumptions or motives.

It's nice to see Peter call Cooper out and promote the sharing of knowledge. I wish Peter's argument had been better, especially considering Cooper's fragile facade.
Posted by Ron Zeno @ 09/12/2002 09:08 AM PST [link to this comment]

offhand, i can think of no example where a little user learnin' has been a dangerous thing, as you both suggest. i'm trying to picture a scenario where this could be the case, and having real difficulty. i can, however, think of many times when i've been relieved to locate someone within an organization that has even the smallest bit of exposure to and consideration of user needs.

so, enlighten me, please: give me an example of someone knowing a little bit about the field of user experience being a bad thing, and explain exactly how their application of what little knowledge they had ended in a result that could be categorized as "bad." what were the negative consequences that resulted? i'm all curious, as my experience has been exactly the opposite.
Posted by lane @ 09/12/2002 05:23 PM PST [link to this comment]

so, enlighten me, please

It's just like any other skill. People who know only a little can unknowingly take on more they can handle with disasterous consequences. Their management may overestimate their abilities... When the skill is rare, it doesn't take too many mistakes for management to decide it is overvalued or just plain hype. All the problems related to "sophomoric behavior"...
Posted by Ron Zeno @ 09/12/2002 06:33 PM PST [link to this comment]

Arrrgh! Here we go again...twisting Alan's words. It's becoming a sport, really.

Let's look again at what Peter wrote. He says Alan's stance is:
That doing this kind of work--understanding what the market needs, how it meets business goals, and designing solutions for digital media--can only properly be done by highly experienced practitioners.

Cooper's right, damn it! The key word is properly. Understanding how all those things come together to affect the final design solution really does require "highly experienced practitioners."

That doesn't mean Cooper thinks inexperienced UX practitioners can't help improve the user experience. To be fair, I don't know what he thinks on this matter, but I have seen Cooper speak (a lot more than most people) and I've never heard him say there's no room for novices.

My own thoughts on the matter are in line with Lane's.

Thinking organizationally: if I has running a software development project and I had someone on the team who wanted to understand the users better and put that knowledge to work to improve the users' experience, I'd be CRAZY not to let them have a go at it.
Posted by Brad Lauster @ 09/12/2002 11:43 PM PST [link to this comment]

What logic or evidence can sustain an argument that an ignorant chimp's determined effort at producing an interactive product (i.e., defined here as a random result) would be worse if that chimp came to know and cared that user benefits obtain if he were to avoid a certain method or result?

And given that the parameters often introduced in the matter, such as market dynamics, business objectives, and the limitations of technology are considered well-known and significantly influential (consider that entire clause to be delivered with a strong edge of sarcasm) ... I think it difficult to sustain an argument that the clued-in-chimp's result would be anything less than remarkably beneficial to actual users (over the result delivered in ignorance by the clueless chimp).

In the present discussion there's no question that you can otherwise dissuade the chimp from undertaking the work. Or his 'manager' in assigning the work. That's a separate question -- and it more often isn't the chimp, but the manager that's mis- or un-informed. Further, answering that question in the context of interaction design is akin to answering the falling-tree-sound question: if the manager is dissuaded from designing the (ill-)conceived product, was that good (i.e., professional) interaction design?

To ward off some of the usual carping: I was finally moved, in 1997, to write out a position I'd long maintained :

It takes an interaction design professional to do professional interaction design.

I delivered this as introduction to the design track I chaired at WWW6 (or was it the design panel in the main tracks?), prefaced by a quiz about the egalitarian nature of design, and the special characteristics of the web to enable such. A significant majority thought egalite grand. But then a question: How many present had themselves, or know of friends who had, invited/allowed their Mother to bake their wedding cake?

Indeed -- it turns out (to generalize from the responses) that not all design tasks are equal, and not all designers are equal to all design tasks.

Two further questions in the quiz revealed a large variability among the designers present in the depth of understanding of relevant user behavior factors and potential design considerations. Factors and considerations you'd expect to be widely understood among such folks. I think we'd see similar results even today, among a significant number of highly-experienced designers.

This points to difficulties in the 'practitioners-place-of-privilege' argument: practitioners of all stripes are frequent producers of junk -- junk that your ex-customers are eagerly awaiting (e.g., your departure plus 6 months) to be able to redesign, that other constituencies are ready (and hopefully able) to ignore while fleeing elsewhere. Producing junk is not the exclusive domain of inexperienced designers. Are we ready to say that only designers who have never produced improper designs are highly-enough experienced? And at what point in this rapidly evolving landscape are we to be assured that a designer won't, finally or ever, produce such a dog, and therefore be disqualified from the rarified fraternity? How would we know, anyway, given the fudging we engender by accounting for markets, businesses, and technologies?

Once we realize that mistakes, improper designs, are not the exclusive domain of inexperienced designers we can get past that other chestnut: the prohibition (to exaggerate) of listening to (and early and often engagement of) users and other constituencies.

Baloney -- apart from constituencies, who else is there to listen to? Primacy belongs not to the designer, it belongs the designer's dedication to serving, to solving. In *any* causality formalism this places the dependency squarely on constituencies, such as the user. That is, it's the user, e.g., and not the designer that's key. In many designs, apart from this service the designer's 'contribution' may be irrelevant, a random effect much like the chimp's (with self-elevation precisely source of bias/error in the design). And just as an interpreter can claim neither the idea or the text, it's not the designer but the users and other constituencies who are "right."

Anyone who gives constituents voice, extending and amplifying, improving -- or reducing, as approprite-- fidelity through to consequence ... all who do this designs. All who do this well designs well. Implementers/contributors of all stripes, whether programmers, copywriters, illustrators, animators, marketers, and more, are well-advised to array themselves in service to that/those designer's needs and capabilities. However formal, or informal; idealized or messy the resulting design system.

Following this 'rule' I think we'll find quite a wide range of suitable contributors in every organization. And some suprisingly great designers.

Posted by Nick Ragouzis @ 09/13/2002 11:39 PM PST [link to this comment]

My comments about a little learning being a dangerous thing center around the concept that some people can create false sense of user-centered security. My position is not so polemic as others. Instead, I'm simply raising the issue that there's a point of diminishing returns. I'm not sure what that point is...I'm still trying to discern it. Yet a "non-professional" person trying to perform UX design (ID, IA, HCI) might, that is, might cause harm. The harm is in lulling the development team/management team into a false sense that, "Well, since Alfred asked two people on his team if they liked the drop-down menu, then don't need to spend money on these information architects."
Posted by Joe @ 09/20/2002 07:25 AM PST [link to this comment]

Of course Cooper wants you to think that good interaction designers are rare and valuable. That way you'll hire his firm. Since he knows what to look for, you'll figure, he probably has all the good ones anyway.
Posted by Jerry Kindall @ 09/20/2002 12:48 PM PST [link to this comment]

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