The CHI/AIGA Experience Design Forum

Minneapolis, Minnesota—April 21-22, 2002

Editor’s note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, we’re only able to present coverage of the first day of the two–day event.

The first–ever CHI–AIGA Experience Design Forum was greeted “We can choose which skills we want to learn and each of these skills become arrows in our quivers to be used as needed.” with a real Minnesota welcome. Snow. Several inches of it. But inside the Minneapolis Convention Center there was a warm sense of camaraderie among the Forum attendees, who came in from both the CHI and AIGA communities, a hopeful sign for future collaboration among the two groups, as well as the practitioners they represent.

“The Philosophy of (User) Experience”
John Rheinfrank, of Seespace and professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

Rheinfrank began the morning by cautioning that his remarks were more “postcards rather than complete thoughts.”

He argued that we’re at an inflection point, with the potential to play a major role in making businesses successful. “If someone tells you you’re just making something pretty, don’t let them buffalo you,” he said.

He pointed to business strategy guru C.K. Prahalad who predicts almost every successful business will develop the capacity to deliver compelling multi–channel experiences. This in turn is driving companies to form networks of interlocking experiences. For example, Rheinfrank said, flying on United Airlines he was served Starbucks Coffee. His Avis rental car used General Motors’ OnStar system to direct him to a Marriott hotel, where the concierge referred him to a Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant that highlighted Peet’s Coffee.

Rheinfrank identified several trends he thinks will be heavily influential:

  • A shift from “product thinking” to “platform thinking”—General Motors’ AUTOnomy concept car is build on a universal “skateboard” chassis that can shared by a wide variety of vehicles.

    This is a radical shift from traditional thinking, which emphasized individual products, puts a premium on identifying and takes advantage of commonalities among the underlying logic and structure of activities. Rheinfrank predicts companies will begin realizing they need to do the same with “experience strategies.”

  • Experience opportunities—How to deal with emerging and evolving properties.
  • Force transformation—Corporations are becoming more noncontiguous and modal, leading to relationships that are loosely coupled, but tightly aligned among different corporate divisions or allied companies. This is similar, he said, to the modern U.S. military theories, which emphasize a “swarm intelligence” among numerous small–scale units who are able to react quickly to changing circumstances.
  • Active learning—Rheinfrank believed we’ll see a shift in emphasis to “just–in–time” learning from the traditional “just–in–case” learning.

“Designing a User–centered Design Practice”
Clement Mok, Office of Clement Mok, moderator; Alan Cooper of Cooper; Katja Rimmi of Adobe Systems and John Cain of Sapient.

Cooper kicked off the panel by arguing it was time to declare victory and move on by acting like winners rather than strivers.

Cooper acknowledged that “victory” looked a lot like past years, we practitioners were struggling for acceptance. But, he said, we’ve created a new profession, come up with an approach for what we do, and built successful companies in the process.

It’s time, he said, to end the terminology debates and appreciate each other’s skills. We can choose which skills we want to learn and each of these skills become arrows in our quivers to be used as needed.

These debates over who does what and what to call what we do are legacies of a hothouse atmosphere, he said. Much like a young plant, the user experience profession needed sheltering initially to let it live long enough to get off the ground. But eventually the tomato plant needs to be transplanted in the open ground and given room to grow or it will also die. So too does the profession need to move out into the wider world.

In fact, Cooper argued, user experience professionals are poised for success in the post–bust economy. “Companies realize the New Economy, time–to–market, tech–cool, excess [venture capital] cash were mirages. They know the answers lie elsewhere, and they’re ready to listen to cooler heads—to us.”

If clients like designers’ ideas, they’ll want to bring them in–house, which means professionals need to be ready to pass the baton.

But Cooper predicted that consultants won’t train themselves out of work because companies will end up realizing that our skills are harder than they look. “If this was easy, everyone would’ve been doing it for years.”

Cooper also argued that user experience professionals need to broaden their horizons, realizing that they’re often more change agents who are helping achieve both user and business goals. Not every executive cares about happy users, he said, but they do care about repeat business. Consequently, we must speak their values and show how good design helps business achieve their goals.

Cooper concluded by predicting there will be no shortage of work as technology expands further and further into everyday objects. “In the industrial age, design was a nice–to–have. But software has made it a must–have because it’s become so complicated, and everything will have software embedded in it.”

Rimmi said the Research and Design Group’s efforts at Adobe started in 1995 with user interface design, mostly simple mock–ups and alpha testing, but the work has expanded over the years to include technical writers, user researchers and visual designers.

Among the lessons learned, said Rimmi, was the value of having a centralized group—but one that assigned specific members to work with product development teams.

Adobe’s move to standard user interfaces across multiple products also spurred collaboration among product development groups that hadn’t previously interacted with each other. Rimmi said collaboration and consensus–building were key factors in her group’s effectiveness.

The group also puts emphasis on analyzing the return–on–investment for their efforts and has developed a clearly defined process that meshes with Adobe’s overall product development lifecycle.

Cain said the dotcom bust had brought a return to business sanity. “The new economy opened a space where claims were unfettered by traditional [return–on–investment] evaluations. However the big change, he said, is that “e–business has now become business as usual.”

“Power and Simplicity”
Michel Beaudouin–Lafon of L’université Paris–Sud and Wendy Mackay of Inria

Beaudouin–Lafon and Mackay demonstrated CPN 2000, an on–going research project on a tool used to create complex diagrams called “Petri Nets.”

They completely overhauled the software, so that it has no menu bars, no title bars, no scrollbars, and no dialog boxes.

Instead the program uses a unique combination of two–hand input, with the user using both a mouse and trackball. This is combined with using several different contextual tools that are triggered by a combination of the mouse and trackball.

The result is an innovative interface that’s hard to describe without seeing it, but which allows users to do almost any task without having to take their hands off the mouse and trackball.

The interface also allows three ways to do the same task, something the designers initially worried would be confusing. But they discovered they need all three styles of interaction, since different interfaces ended up being better suited for different tasks through the process of creating and updating the diagrams.

While working closely with users to develop the interface, Beaudouin–Lafon and Mackay said they discovered videotaping was an extremely valuable tool, since often users self–reports on how long tasks took proved to be inaccurate. In one case, users said adjusting diagrams took “a little” time, when it actually took up to 30 percent of their time.

The two said the new interface has proved popular because of its perceived simplicity and they’ve been able to take advantage of a tight–knit user community to help people learn the radically new interface.

“Research, Analysis, and Design”
Nico Macdonald of Spy, moderator; Dan Russell of IBM Research Almaden; Liz Sanders, of SonicRim, and Michael Summers of SkinnyWhite.com

Russell compared user research to the public health system—it’s trying to influence the entire culture rather than just helping individual patients. Likewise, it needs to do more than just raise awareness, it needs to change the daily practice.

Sanders distinguished between two types of research for designing for experiencing. [Note: Sanders has a huge issue with the term “experience design,” since she believes you can only “design for experiences.” Hence the wording.]

Evaluative research takes an idea or concept that already exists and seeks to figure out how to make it better. In contrast, generative research leads to ideas about what to make.

The two require different approaches and styles of thinking, she said.

Evaluative research prizes reliability and validity and requires an analytical mindset. It tends to focus on users, customers and consumers, asking if something is usable or desirable.

Generative research requires a creative and exploratory mindset, but one that also is rigorous and relevant. It focuses on the owners and creators of experiences and seeks to answer the question of what will be useful.

Sanders concluded by saying that the new focus needs to be on developing a language of experience, since she felt there are still many concepts that are poorly articulated.

Summers led off the provocative talk, saying he’d hoped the panel was going to be more of a celebrity death match between researchers and designers.

“You’re the people I’ve been working for. I’ve been your bitch for a long time,” he said, complaining that user researchers have gotten a bad reputation because they’re called in when projects are already done and asked to criticize things.

Summers acknowledged there were some “research extremists,” people who try to put metrics on art and don’t understand branding.

But he asked the audience to acknowledge there are also designers with a complete and total disregard for their audience. “These are the people who’d say, ‘I’m not making a pen, I’m making a statement about penhood.’ ”

He said brand experience becomes the bridge between these two worlds, since it needs to satisfy both usability and design concerns.

Peer–reviewed case studies
A major part of the Forum was also presentation of five peer–reviewed case studies, which AIGA Experience Design hopes to continue publishing. These included:

  • “SHS Orcas: The First Integrated Information System for Long Term Healthcare Facility Management” by Steve Calde and Robert Reimann of Cooper
  • “Making Joining Easy: Case of an Entertainment Club Website” by Dena Fletcher & Annette Brookman of Columbia House
  • “Climb Meru: An Integrated Brand Experience” by Andrew Davison of texture/media
  • “Data Visualization for Strategic Decision Making” by Angela Shen–Hsieh & Mark Schindler, Visual I–O
  • “Transforming the Content Management Process at ibm.com” by Louis Weitzman of IBM.

Since a summary would not do them justice, I suggest reading the full case studies yourself.

George Olsen, is principal of Interaction by Design. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios, such as Disney, to Fortune 500 companies, including Nestle and Transamerica. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.

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