Best Practices for Digital Product Design
Why UX for Good was very good: A rebuttal to the naysayers
Last week I had the privilege of participating in an event called UX for Good/UXXU 2011, organized by individuals (Insight Labs’ Jeff Leitner and Manifest Digital’s Jason Ulaszek) who saw an opportunity for five nonprofit organizations to benefit from the design discipline of user experience. Like any first-time project involving volunteers, it had its ups and downs. It also brimmed over with enthusiastic participants.
But when the event concluded with group presentations on Saturday evening, it was clear that every team had made a responsible effort to assist deserving nonprofits with digital media strategies that could extend their message, and their reach.
Let me tell you a little bit about UX for Good/UXXU 2011. Forty user experience designers, ten visual designers, five nonprofit executives, “sparks” in the form of outside experts with something valuable to contribute – let’s take the internationally-respected Bruce Mau, designer of MASSIVE CHANGE as one example – gathered in Chicago for two days. Their purpose: to bring the discipline of user experience design to bear on problems that society has yet to solve through conventional means.
The problems addressed by the design teams: unemployment, urban violence, cross-cultural understanding, public education, and community mental health. Note that none of these are moneymakers for companies in the for-profit sector. Maybe that’s why they haven’t been solved yet. And maybe that’s why it takes a volunteer effort such as UX for Good/UXXU 2011 to even begin a rethinking of how these problems could be addressed.
As a user experience professional and digital media strategist with over 10 years of direct experience working with for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental organizations, I would offer that user experience as a practice brings to our clients a perspective they may have lacked prior to engagement with this kind of exercise.
In our consultancy here at Interface Guru, we may not have “solved” our clients’ larger problems (such as the impact of the Internet on conventional publishing, the post-Internet challenge to associations, the funding crunch in education for the sciences). But our clients tell us that we change the way they think about process, and the opportunities it brings. That their perspective is profoundly altered, for the better, and that they now understand how they can use digital (and conventional) media to achieve their goals.
In the past 10 years we at Interface Guru have produced a lot of useful work, including usability testing, information architecture, test sequence design, and user interface design. We have led scores of senior decision makers through intensive digital strategy facilitations that result in organizational consensus – a “drop the shields” approach that eases the path for any organization’s work projects. We are most proud of creating organizational change by changing individual perspectives.
I would offer that this change of perspective is exactly what the “idealists” at UX for Good were attempting to bring to the participating nonprofits. And I would also offer that they succeeded in doing so. As in any competition, the work products varied in quality; that’s what competition is about. But I am confident that every single participating nonprofit executive left the event with valuable perspectives they could not afford to have acquired by conventional means, i.e., engagement with professional user experience firms.
It is with this perspective that I followed UX for Good-related tweets today, and ran across the entertainingly titled “UX for Good is Bullshit or, the Pernicious Effects of ‘Doing Good’ without Understanding the Problem” by Gabby Hon, and its scathing assessment of the value of such an event. To ignore this commentary is a disservice to over 70 people who donated their time, effort, and in many cases, unreimbursed travel expenses to join the UX for Good conference, as well as to the Adler School of Psychology, who donated the excellent facilities.
Perhaps the author is privy to some nefarious agenda on the part of UX for Good of which we, the witless attendees, were unaware.
A few points I would like to rebut:
- No one at UX for Good, including the organizers, were so unrealistic as to assume that any UX team could “solve” a social problem in two days. Rather, in the spirit of my comments above on how we effect change for our clients, the event was meant to assist nonprofit organizations in applying a new process to what will admittedly be an ongoing effort.
- No one at UX for Good implied any parallels to the participants in the TED events, although someone like Bruce Mau would certainly belong onstage at TED. (My team’s client, globallives.org’s David Evan Harris, was featured at TEDxSOMA, but maybe that doesn’t count.)
- To describe the summations of the challenges as “inane” seems unduly hostile. It’s a shame that idealism, a force that created real and substantive change in America two generations ago, is now only fit for mockery. If the descriptions of the challenges were “muddle-headed,” perhaps the writer did not understand that the challenges were developed in concert with the nonprofits being assisted.
- “What happens when these geniuses emerge and present their solutions?” Well, I can tell you what happened. Each problem was reframed. Approaches and perspectives that had not existed within those nonprofits were surfaced. The participating organizations and their representatives were fully engaged, and left the event with a new way of approaching their missions. And yes, some teams committed to staying with their nonprofit client for a year.
- “Or is this really about a bunch of elite liberals getting together to do good and feel better about themselves?” I can safely say that all of us were too busy producing work on behalf of our nonprofit clients to pat ourselves, or each other, on the back.
- The author’s charge – that there is no attempt at accountability because the users were not present – is specious. User experience professionals know that clients frequently need to be interviewed carefully in order to identify users. You can only begin including users when you have defined who they are. And a substantial part of the exercise at UX for Good was to help our nonprofit clients identify those users.
Many attendees tweeted that UX for Good was a great experience. Given that the participants had nothing to gain for themselves, those tweets take on a whole new context. I’ve already committed to next year’s conference in New Orleans, with the deeply held belief that a gathering of people who specialize in process can make a difference to participating nonprofits.
As for being called “elitist liberals,” I would offer that all of us who attended UX for good are in fact pragmatic idealists, and proud of it. And that we can, indeed, win through consensus, if we assume good intentions.