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Words Matter: Design, Experience, the WSJ and the UXPA

Thursday, June 7th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

There was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, proclaiming that design school (dschool) is the next business school (bschool).  The claim has been made countless times over the last decade. It implies that designers provide value to businesses, and are fundamental in helping them solve problems, by using divergent thinking – by acting like designers. By claiming that design is the “next big thing”, this article – and others like it – introduce design to an entire group of people that have otherwise never heard of it, which is positive. The article is thin and an advertising piece for Stanford, which is neither positive nor unique, but for the purposes of this post, it’s also not relevant. I typically refrain from reading the comments of any online site, because they are notoriously poisonous. But in this case, I was curious to see how readers of the WSJ react. The result is disappointing:

“I guess this is why jobs are going to China. Their universities are teaching hardcore math and science and our universities are teaching BS.”

“Design is only as good as the function and practicality. There needs to be good engineering at a reasonable cost.”

“I don’t get it?”

“Another example of education run amuck in the U.S.”

The overall tone of the response is one that laments the demise of US business due to poor education of students in science and math.

There was also a recent announcement that the UPA, or usability professionals association, has rebranded themselves as the UXPA. This resulted in a large-scale and almost entirely negative response from various figureheads of other professional organizations. Ex-board leaders from IxDA called it a land-grab, and Lou Rosenfeld – one of the founders of the IAI – wrote a pretty direct response.

I don’t particularly care one way or the other about what UPA does with their name. Nearly all of the designers I know have never heard of UPA and will continue to never have heard of it, with or without an x. And the WSJ article hasn’t been the first describing how design can fix all of our problems, thin on details but loud on cheerleading, nor has it been the first place design was relegated second-class citizen at the expense of the “real sciences.” But both events display the large-scale lack of clarity surrounding design, not just for the public, but for designers, too.

Both events actually stem from the same problem, which is a problem of history. Collectively, we don’t know the relationships between design and outside disciplines, and we have a scary lack of knowledge about our own roots. I’ve never been much for learning history as facts, because I find it meaningless without understanding of the richness of people’s lives. I don’t mean to imply we should know who invented what, or in what year the iMac was released. I mean we have a poverty of a different sort of history – knowing the connective tissue of how our profession has arrived at where it is now. I’m disappointed that the general public doesn’t know it, as evidenced in the WSJ comments. But I don’t blame them, because the US is trying hard to be a STEM country. But I’m thoroughly ticked off that members of UPA don’t know it, or have elected to ignore it.

By connective tissue, I mean stories and precedent. I mean stories of Shelley Evenson and John Rheinfrank’s work at Fitch. The legacy of Jay Doblin. The push towards technology transfer that’s been spearheaded by Bill Buxton at CHI for the last twenty years. The work of John Anderson, Herb Simon, and Allan Newell at CMU. The union advocacy work of Pelle Ehn. The rise and fall of Westinghouse and Unilever; the rise and fall of Scient and Viant and Studio Archetype. The thought-leadership of Johnson-Laird and Cooper and Buchanan. The glory years of Xerox PARC. This is the history of interaction design, the profession that’s now trumpeted as the saviour for commodity-led business, the profession that understands experiences, the profession that is about behavior and dialogue. This history that has shaped our discipline holds an implicit, rich, and multi-faceted definition of words like design, experience, service, and innovation. These words point to things, they mean things. They reference entire careers of people, thinkers, researchers, and practitioners. These words mean things independent of your own understanding of their history, and their history doesn’t stop existing simply because you don’t know about it.

This is not “just semantic” (although it is entirely about meaning and language), because the words are now placeholders for people’s careers. Multiple tweets of the UPA/UXPA announcement asked (humorously? seriously?), “Does this mean I get a new title?” No, no it doesn’t. You don’t gain knowledge, skills or respect by putting the word “experience” or the letter X anywhere near your name. Taking a few classes in design methods doesn’t make you a designer, and changing your professional organization’s name doesn’t make you any wiser about experiences. It’s going to take hard work to move from an engineering field of time on task and number of errors, to embracing issues of poetics and soul. Like the commenters in the WSJ article inadvertently illustrate, these are challenging topics where words matter. Soul? What’s that? Sensual? Poetics? Emotion? You won’t find a SUS score for these.

I appreciate design being written about in the newspaper, and I appreciate people volunteering at a professional organization to support our discipline. But “our discipline” has a history that has resulted from the extremely intellectual and focused work of individuals, and their contribution is trivialized equally when the WSJ commenters claims that it “Sounds like macaroni art to me” as when the UPA claims ownership over the word “experience”. Words, like ideas, are free. And like ideas, words are powerful. When we use them, we should mean it. All of the time, and with purpose.

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