There are those times in your career when you think about the path that got you where you are and wonder about the parallel universes where you’re doing something radically different.
When I think back on how I wound up becoming a user experience/interaction designer / information architect, the path is similar to many people. I started with a knack for writing and a knack for computers. This led to a technical writing job explaining software to people in as plain a language as possible. As I did more and more of this, I found myself writing around the bad usability of the software I documented. I was user number one. Well, maybe QA and I were users number one together.
Being user number one made me more and more interested in user centred design (UCD) principles, and I began to take an interest in how users accomplished their tasks in the software I worked on. Over time, I managed to convince one of my managers to allow me to move from the back end of the software design lifecycle to the front end.
It didn’t work out so well at that particular company, but it did give me an opportunity to begin experimenting with rapid prototyping, and gave me a visceral sense of how crucial it is to know something about the people who will use your product or service. I have carried those things I learned with me through a number of successive roles as an Information Architect/Usability guy at a number of different web-based companies (and one disastrous experiment in the public service of Ontario).
Unfortunately, the lion’s share of user experience design work available where I live is in the digital marketing or ad agency sphere. For a 40-something guy who has been a fan of adbusters for years, I used to find my day job exhausting as I tried to find ways to help clients tell their “Brand Story” in “compelling and engaging ways”. As part of a larger community of User Experience Designers, Interaction Designers, and other overlapping disciplines, I am constantly reminded of the higher aims of our noble professions. The Interaction Design Association’s manifesto is:
We believe that the human condition is increasingly challenged by poor experiences. IxDA intends to improve the human condition by advancing the discipline of Interaction Design. To do this, we foster a community of people that choose to come together to support this intention. IxDA relies on individual initiative, contribution, sharing and self-organization as the primary means for us to achieve our goals.
There are ux/interaction designers out there that tackle real, compelling problems for users of services, products, and systems. I envy these folks every day. I think that startups like Ready for Zero capture the essence of what’s possible with a few dedicated people and a really great idea to solve a real problem.
In November of 2010, Peter Merholz, of Adaptive Path, gave voice to something that I think gets to a lot of UX people who are in agency environments, unleashing a firestorm of criticism and support from all sides.
Then, in February 2011, Kaleem Khan spoke on “Ethical Interaction Design” at the 2011 IxDA conference in Boulder, CO. At that same conference, Richard Buchanan pronounced that “Interaction Design – no, all Design – is about human dignity”.
These and other conversations have been buzzing in my head for awhile now, and I presented my hope to the Toronto IXDA group in the hopes that we could start thinking about what it means, to paraphrase Buchanan, design for the interaction between people through the mediating influence of technology.
As an aside, technology is such a broad term here. Did an interaction designer have any input on the ticket window at the bus station, where I speak to the agent through a plexiglass panel in which a microphone and speaker are mounted? I’m guessing not. There’s not a whole lot of dignity in that particular experience. It feels like a prison visiting room.
It’s been six months since I attended Interaction 11, and I am no closer to pinpointing what it is that I do for human dignity in our over-technologized society, but I really feel, as a designer, that there’s more to it than gadgets and brands. Sometimes innovation can be achieved by getting back to basics. If it sounds lofty to consider human dignity a goal of design, I figure it’s a pretty good place to start.
And so I say this: if you have a project or product that you think meets this goal in some way and you need someone who’s been doing UX for quite some time to help out with it, pro bono. Then we should talk.