DUX: Five Lessons Learned

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“Great things can happen when you move beyond the bullet point.”Normally I would write a traditional conference overview to inform people about the recent Designing for User Experiences conference (DUX) held in San Francisco, June 6-8. But the format of the sessions was set up in such a way that my overview would be even further distilled from the panels, which were 8-minute distillations of the papers. So, instead, I would like to impart a few of the impressions I came away with and recommend that everyone go to the AIGA Case Study Archive to read the papers that were accepted.

We are a like-minded community.
The attendees of DUX—members of AIGA, SIGCHI and SIGGRAPH—while having different professional emphases, are a rich and robust community with much more in common than we generally think. This blended community is curious and vibrant and surprisingly interested in sharing personal stories of our work. The conversations in the breaks and at the receptions were as rich and informative as the dialogue during the panels. There was no “us vs. them,” or academia vs. real world—research and practice blended well together. As a matter of fact, unless someone explicitly pointed out that they were from one space or another, the conversations were incredibly similar.

There is a positive undercurrent in the community as a whole.
My impressions, after three days at the IA Summit in Portland this past March and two days at DUX this past weekend, is that the atmoshpere of the field is looking up. Yes, I know many people are still out of work, but it seems to me that more folks are working and less are whining; people seem genuinely excited about their work. The challenges within organizations are still there, but the stories told show that design (this includes all the flavors—IA, visual, interaction, etc.) is engaging in productive partnerships with the other organizational disciplines. Engineering and marketing are collaborative partners. I heard less “They don’t take me seriously, how can we be heard and involved?” than “What else can we do to make improvements?” and “Where else can our skills be used in the process?” this time around. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there is definitely a shift happening.

Great things can happen when you move beyond the bullet point.
I was excited to see that many of the presenters moved beyond the traditional PowerPoint deck of bulleted items and actually spoke to the audience conversationally rather than reading their slides—which we can all do ourselves. It makes it harder to take notes, but as an attendee, I appreciated the effort and the conversational nature of it. Jess McMullin chaired a panel that focused on constraints. He challenged his panelists to create their presentations without any bullets and to include more images and fewer words. This challenge worked. For the most part, the presenters were more lively, the slides were illustrations of the points rather than lists of the points, and overall, the collection of presentations was more interesting and entertaining. I challenge the rest of us to try this at home — er… work. What if we began to give presentations at the office that followed this logic? Would it help elevate the status of design within the organization? It definitely makes the presentation more challenging to give, but it forces people to listen since they can’t take away a list of bulleted items to throw into the shredder bin. Try this and let us know how it worked. One presenter reminded us that while a “constraint is a factor identified as a barrier,” an “opportunity is a factor identified as a liberator.” Liberation within design. Liberation within an organization. Liberation from the bullet point. This is a pretty cool way of looking at things.

Design can have great impact, and shoulders great responsibility.
This community is having an impact. We “design” the products people are using every day. We create new behavior and change behavior. We have a responsibility to be smart about what we do and how we do it. One of the presenters reminded us that it is our responsibility to understand the communities of practice that already exist as we design products and experiences. These communities of practice contain deeply embedded structures and processes, and in understanding these, we can create more effective experiences. Several presenters reiterated this theme, and I think it’s good to continue to remind ourselves that it is more than the user that we need to understand; often it is a collection of people within a community that will give us the insight we need.

Mentors can be found in all sorts of places. You might even be one.
One of the closing plenary speakers on Saturday was a woman named Sara Little Turnbull. She is 85 and has worked for six decades in the realm of strategic design development. She is still working, currently at the Process of Change, Innovation, and Design Laboratory of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. As I watched her converse with Richard Anderson and relate some of her experiences, I realized that I personally was in desperate need of mentors. I try to mentor my team at work, and am always open to answering questions from colleagues in the community via email. I hope that as I share my experiences I am mentoring those coming behind me, but I sense a lack of knowledge about those who have paved the way, of those who I can learn from. What this speaker reminded me of was that we have leaders in the field who may not be recognized, yet have much to offer. I believe there is a need for more formal mentoring structures to help get people together. There are many of us—particularly females over 35—who don’t necessarily have a lot of role models to learn from. We have a lot of great peers, but the women who have gone before us are unsung heroes, women who haven’t been recognized and are still trying to get by in a corporate culture that is predominately male. This speaker reminded me that mentors are out there, and we all should seek out one or two, as well as remembering to be one ourselves.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this conference, and for being a ”dot two” release (dot one was the Forum at SIGCHI last year) the organizers did a good job. The days were interesting, I feel like I learned a few things and, most importantly, I felt excited to be a part of this vibrant, rich, and curious community, particularly at this point in time. I would love to hear how others felt, and welcome your thoughts and feedback. I’m sure our feedback will be welcomed by the organizers as they plan the next version of DUX.

    AIGA Case Study Archive As of this posting, the DUX cases had yet to be posted but keep checking back.

Some other conference thoughts can be found from other attendees here:

There is also discussion going on at the AIGA Experience Design [http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AIGAExperienceDesign] list about the conference and other attendee’s thoughts as well as a few posts on SIGIA-L (archives) [http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/0306/0077.html]Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online). She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She is editor in chief of Boxes and Arrows.


  1. Erin, I really appreciate everything you had to say. I think you broke it down really well. I especially appreciate what you had to say about mentors. I appreciate the gender problems here very much but want to add that even men have problems finding mentors. I would love to see our community begin a real mentoring program where those who have “made it” make themselves available to those who are up and coming and who are taking a sincere interest in the theory and practice of digital experience design.

    I think the only thing that was really missing for me, and I said this at the conference itself was depth. I wanted to open up these cases studies and see what was inside. When I left the Design Forum last year (lets really call that 0.9) I felt like I got the story, the process, the answer. This time around I feel like I got a broad tease. I had so many questions for the PeopleSoft and Adobe people and even more for the Ivrea and Truck folks but there was just no time.

    I wonder and knowing that my presentation might not have made the cut, would less have been more?

    Lou, also commented on teh “white elephant” in the room being “What is experience design?”. I actually think that it is a POMO thing, but we are experience design. I’m not so sure I need the answer anymore. What I like is that people who respond to it come and enjoy listening and engaging one another for 2+ days.

    I can’t believe we said we want to wait 2 years for the next one. 😉

  2. Erin,

    After reading a few articles on Tufte’s presentation advice (http://home.teleport.com/~phillip/tufte.html) and the dangers of powerpoint (http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/understanding_powerpoint_special_deliverable_5.php), I’ve tried doing more “talks” than “presentations.” My aim is to get by without slides or with a minimum number of slides. I’ve discovered a few things:

    1) I know and can remember a lot more than I’ve trusted myself with in the past.

    2) If you know the subject matter and can speak without slides, your message is received better, and the audience relates the content to you — you don’t look like you gave a book report, you look like a knowledgable expert.

    3) Talking WITH people is much more interesting than talking TO them.

    Thanks for the summary – I wanted to go to DUX, but it wasn’t in the cards this time around…2 years, huh?

  3. One reason people go back to grad school is to find mentors. A lot of them (like Sara Little Turnbull) call academia home. These are the people who have an interest in imparting knowledge and experience. The good teachers, anyway.

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