How can MI UPA, IxDA groups, and MichiCHI work together?

UX practitioners in the state of Michigan have an enviable problem. We have so many active professional groups that it’s easy to get confused by which one is doing what, exactly.

Which groups?

Each group organizes events for practitioners, students, and academics to gather together in order to network and learn from each other. It’s great!

But it is also a bit much to keep track of, and I’m not always clear on which group is sponsoring which event. After all, a great many people in the UX field do usability research and evaluation, interaction design, and are interested in research and theory. Thus, we tend to see a lot of overlap in attendees for events from any of these organizations.

So, during a conversation at work today, Caitlin, Alaina, and I hatched a rough concept. (Disclaimer: this post represents what I personally took away from that conversation. I invite Alaina and Caitlin to chime in on the comments below to correct my thinking and/or to add to this post.)

Here’s the gist: Loosely coordinate the efforts of these organizations by factors of geography, frequency, and approach to UX.

Factor: Geography

MI UPA is a state-wide association, so we hope that MI UPA events will be big enough to draw people from a wider area of Michigan. Of course, it is difficult to draw people from as far north as the Upper Peninsula (there are UXers up there, right?), but for a great deal of people in the state, an occassional drive to Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, or Grand Rapids is acceptable if the event will be good enough.

However, IxDA is based on local groups. IxDA-Lansing, for instance, tends to draw people from the Lansing area and nearby areas like Owosso and Flint. IxDA-Grand Rapids will likewise draw people from that area.

MichiCHI is similar in geographic reach to MI UPA.

Factor: Frequency

Because of the geographic constraints, having frequent meetings is easier for IxDA local groups because attendees simply don’t have to drive that far. So, IxDA groups could meet monthly with greater ease, and they would be more relaxed.

However, because people would need to drive further to attend events by the statewide organizations, they could do better to meet perhaps quarterly or even less, leaving the more frequent get-togethers to the IxDA local groups. The expectation is that these less frequent events would be a bit more polished—more of an event than a meet up.

Factor: Approach to UX

What I mean by this phrase is whether the UX focus is more academic (MichiCHI), more focused on usability work (MI UPA), or more focused on interaction design (IxDA). Of course, because we’re all in the same general field, this breakdown should be taken with a pretty heavy grain of salt. But while we tend to operate as generalists in part, I personally appreciate opportunities in each area, so I think there is value in this distinction.

Coordinating events by these various groups

Sketch of idea for coordinating MI UPA, MichiCHI, and IxDA local groups in Michigan.

Sketch of idea for coordinating MI UPA, MichiCHI, and IxDA local groups in Michigan.

So, given these thoughts, here’s a proposal.

1. We embrace the IxDA local groups

Perhaps we could even create more. How about an IxDA-Detroit? IxDA-Marquette? IxDA-Houghton? (Trying to represent the U.P.) These IxDA groups would sate our appetite to meet frequently for networking, idea sharing, and teaching each other how we can do our work better. In the meantime, MI UPA and MichiCHI purposely slow down the pace and encourage participation in the more frequent IxDA events.

2. we help the state associations with less frequent, more formal events

These frequent IxDA groups can help generate the presentations that could then be shared state-wide at larger events sponsored by MI UPA or MichiCHI. The coordinators of each IxDA group could stay in touch with the events committees of MI UPA and MichiCHi and recommend excellent presentations. And these IxDA groups would help promote and recruit volunteers for the larger events put on by MI UPA and MichiCHI. These organizations are already putting on some awesome events like the annual Internet User Experience conference. Let’s pitch in and help them be even more awesome.

And how to coordinate between MI UPA and MichiCHI?

Beats me. Perhaps some of you have ideas?

Conclusion

We have a really great group of practitioners in Michigan, and we’re lucky to have these organizations actively promoting our field. With a little coordination for each group in light of the others, I think we can tune our professional organizations to work even better together.

Do you do UX work in Michigan? What are your thoughts?

IxDA-Lansing Design Reviews workshop

A model for UX design reviews

Design reviews are so important for our work as user experience designers, but they too often fail us. Here is a model for design reviews that overcomes the problems of ego, emotion, and communication that so often get in the way of helpful feedback.

Alaina Kraus, Caitlin Potts, and I presented this process for the Jan 27, 2011 IxDA Lansing meeting.

Roles in the design review process

  1. Designer
  2. Facilitator (may also be a reviewer)
  3. Reviewers (you’ll need at least 2, but 6 may be too many)

Step 1: Designer explains the project and design concerns

At this step the designer shows the design (on paper, on screen, a prototype, etc.) and explains to the reviewers the context of this design. The designer should also point out specific areas that she wants feedback on.

Step 2: Reviewers discuss the design

This is the part that’s going to go against your habits.

The designer steps back and withdraws from the discussion. She should use body language to exclude herself to make it harder for the reviewers to address her. She should instead focus on her listening and note-taking.

Meanwhile, the reviewers are discussing the design amongst themselves. Instead of referring to the designer, they should refer to the design. Instead of talking to the designer, they should talk to each other.

Of course, the reviewers should point out good aspects of the design as well as discuss areas that they’d like to see improved.

By intentionally excluding the designer from this conversation, the dialogue can cover more ground and the feedback can be more honest. Otherwise, the dialogue has a good chance of focusing on a single point or so as the designer begins to explain or defend her decisions. That will derail good feedback, and everyone loses out on good information. People’s feelings are also at risk.

Step 3: The designer rejoins the conversation.

Finally, once the facilitator has determined the design has been discussed enough, he will invite the designer back into the discussion.

The designer can now summarize the notes she has taken in order to give the reviewers the opportunity to catch any misinterpretations. She can also ask follow up questions to clarify feedback she may not have fully understood.

The designer will probably want to defend the work or explain it, but really doesn’t have to. The goal is feedback for her, and at this point, she has it.

Why this method works

This method works because it makes it okay for the designer to simply listen in without feeling a need to defend her work. Likewise, it frees up the reviewers to not have to worry about hurting the designer’s feelings or fear the reaction of feedback taken poorly. While the method may feel a little awkward at first, after a few times it becomes easier.

What kinds of feedback make sense?

The reviewers should provide feedback that matches the fidelity of the design. This is to say, if it’s a rough sketch or task flow diagram, talking about pixel-perfect alignment of the layout is inappropriate. This should be obvious to most of us.

Also, instead of simply presenting your opinion about a design, discuss it in terms of usability heuristics (Nielsen’s list of 10, Tognazzini’s 1st principles document), accessibility concerns, visual design principles (e.g., proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast), and your observations from usability tests.

Where did this method come from?

In the mid-90s I worked at the Michigan State University Writing Center, and we used a similar process that we called the “fishbowl” to teach people to do peer-review writing workshops. In many ways, writing and designing are similar. When I started doing more design work, I recalled this process and adapted it to design reviews. It seems to work great. I credit learning this method from Dr. Sharon Thomas and Dr. Laura Julier of Michigan State University.

Update Feb 26, 2011: Wordcast live on Design Critique

Tim Keirnan over at the Design Critique podcast posted an interview we did on this process. Check it out! And thanks, Tim, for inviting me.

Update July 14, 2011: Michigan UPA workshop

This evening Alaina, Caitlin and I ran this workshop for a Michigan UPA event in Lansing. We had fun and it sounded like the attendees enjoyed themselves while learning this model. Thanks again Second Gear Coworking for letting us use your excellent venue!

IxDA Lansing kickoff featured speaker Dan Klyn

Last night was the inaugural event for IxDA (Interaction Design Association) Lansing, and information architect Dan Klyn presented “The Nature of Information Architecture.”

Presentation overview

Dan’s presentation was both informative and controversial. He provided some nice background on the naming of the field of information architecture, citing Richard Saul Wurman phrasings at the 1976 AIA convention in Philadelphia and then Wurman’s book “Information Architects.”

Dan also proposed a way of considering what information architecture is through a target diagram, from core to outside as:

  1. Ontology (the study of being)
  2. Taxonomy (the science of order or arrangement)
  3. Choreography (writing/describing circular dance)

I like this description of IA. I do feel it gets to the heart of the work, and I can immediately consider certain areas of my own job in this light. Of course there are plenty of other descriptions of IA from Wurman, Rosenfeld, Morville, and others, but as I bring them to mind, they seem to be more focused on describing IA to outsiders whereas this one speaks to those of us already  in the field.

I wouldn’t, for instance, walk up to a client and say, “I’m concerned with the ontology of your system.” But I can talk with other information architects about questions of ontology, and they will likely bring their own experiences to bear.

After discussing this model for IA and how it circles the concept of understanding, Dan shared two ways to answer the question “How do we know when IA is good?”

  • performance (need to measure change in performance from a benchmark)
  • propriety (how appropriate to the context is the IA solution)

When discussing this question of quality of IA, the point was made that a functional, adequate solution is artless. It is insufficient. We’ve all used a website or service that we end up getting irritated with, and could comment afterward “Well at least it worked.” Good IA goes beyond sheer performance to fulfill propriety as well.

Isn’t naming always controversial?

The controversial part of Dan’s presentation is in the naming of things. The gist of my issue is that I felt Dan was saying that strategic-level IA work—the work that involves not just end-users but is concerned with larger business concerns—is beyond the scope of user experience work. (I really hope I’m not misrepresenting Dan’s meaning.)

My experience as a UX professional (note that I used to refer to myself as an information architect) says that UX begins with understanding both user and business needs, and is best done when exploring the strategic-level in order to frame the tactical work.

That said, I will say that with all the work demanded of UX in my job, I regret that I haven’t had the time to devote to a more traditional strategic IA-based analysis of our systems.

Dan made the point that this strategic work, though done by a smaller group, has greater leverage than choosing which style of form field to use. He is right, of course. I just think that that work is still to be done under the UX umbrella.

Thanks Dan for the talk, and Chris Bachelder for bringing it together

All-in-all, I’m really glad I had this opportunity to take part in Dan Klyn’s presentation. It was well-done and thought-provoking. Dan has shared his slides for “The Nature of Information Architecture.”

IxDA Lansing is the first Michigan group of the Interaction Design Association, and was initiated by Chris Bachelder of Techsmith Corp. I, for one, am grateful to have a Lansing-based group to advance UX events. Thanks Chris!