Last week I attended Adobe MAX in Chicago, which was by and large an excellent conference. You can see some of the many "wrap up" posts online for the good, bad and the ugly so I won't get into that. But I will talk about a few things that stuck out to me while I was there.
There was a track called "Inspire," which were several sessions given by gurus of various disciplines, speaking at a loftier, more theoretical level than most, designed to do as their name suggests. That and the inspire sessions had extra big projection screens and color changing stage lights (I kid you not). Actually, two of the Inspire sessions I attended left me feeling they were the best sessions of the conference, because I did come away inspired - and when you've seen it all from the technical sessions, inspiration is the best thing you can hope to get at these events. Along with a couple of these sessions I attended, there seemed to be a strong movement at the conference and among the people I spent time with there towards User Centered Design, and its marketing cousin Customer Focused Business.
You may say this is nothing new, but I have seen a deeper level of understanding and a higher level of awareness come to a predominantly developer audience than in previous years. And this is not limited to MAX, I'm seeing it everywhere. Every blog-reading, conference-attending, best-practicing, self-respecting web developer/designer knows that the purpose of design is not merely to "make it pretty" but rather to "make it usable", moreso than ever before. And this is great. But what bothers me is that if you ask most of these people for examples, or try to get into a deeper discussion with them, the conversation turns to the worn out examples of the iPod and the Wii, and also about how none of their bosses or project managers understand these things or will allow them time to accomplish them, and how they know how it should be done but it's somehow not happening in their job. What's more, I know from personally seeing the vast amount of crap on the web, that most of these designer-developers are not practicing the theory they are so passionate about.
When this really hit me was reflecting on my own work and attempting to measure to what extent I was practicing these principles I found so inspiring (yet not at all new). I somberly realized that I was probably not doing as good a job at this as I believe I have the capability to do. And why? I have a lot of the same excuses: I create a design that's centered around my understanding of what the users want, but when a boss comes along and says "I think we need to give more attention to this element" with no user-centered grounds for doing so (it's always a company objective), I diligently make the change and rarely argue. Usually under the guise of picking my battles. But what would really give me the confidence to argue against such a change is more experience, more practical knowledge and more history under my belt with such design.
And that's where I meander to my point. There is a plethora of information in this industry about the importance of user centered design and customer focused business, but so little information about the practical implementation of it!
Designers have all the forces of traditional businesses and non-web-savvy clients pushing them in the opposite direction, and it's going to be years until most businesses catch up with Apple and Target and Nintendo and Land's End. We need to be told step by step how to start such a movement from our lowly production positions and how to make it work, proving results, so that it can continue.
In parts 2 and 3, I will discuss my experience and thoughts on the practical aspects of User Centered Design and Customer Focused Business (because it so often ties into design).