partial recall

a blog of ideas, links, and musings.

Lay Your Weapons Down and Celebrate


I didn’t want to to wait too long before I got some of my initial thoughts written down about this year’s IA Summit. I could recap all of the sessions I attended, and I still may, but there are others that will likely do it better than me. I swear that in another life, Luke Wroblewski was a court reporter for how quickly he posts his recaps of events. And then, of course, there’s the tireless Jeff Parks, who is the podcast guru and already has two of the keynotes up on Boxes and Arrows. Thank you to you both.

So instead of recapping events right away, I want to share something that I’ve been thinking about for some time. But first, a quick reflection on the 2010 IA Summit…

Why 2010 Was My Favorite IA Summit to Date

Quite simply, the 2010 IA Summit was my favorite because of the breadth of content, the variety of people attending, and the positive vibe of the conference (admittedly, I purposefully steered away from certain venues). I loved the many conversations I had and the privilege I had to meet both old and new acquaintances. There were no hangups about job titles or job roles. There was no need to “define the damn thing” (at least in the sessions I attended). The sessions were diverse and attracted professionals who possessed varying levels of expertise in all kinds of UX skills. Although she closed the Summit, Whitney Hess injected a level of positivity (as she did last year) that was infectious. I know some have offered criticism about the administration and logistics of the event, but I’m pretty easy going. Quite frankly, my focus was on content and conversations, and both were excellent.

Now’s the Time to Put the Bickering to Rest

I’ve gone to the last 4 IA Summits. In 2009 I was disappointed with the tone. It was as if 2009 was the year of bickering among UX professionals. And yes, I do proudly use the term “user experience,” because it’s not only information architects who attend this conference. Likewise, it’s not just interaction designers who attend the Interaction conferences or usability specialists who attend the UPA conferences. Why do you think different people with different job titles go to different conferences? There could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps TITLE A would like to grow his or her skills in or understanding of PRACTICE B. Maybe TITLE B likes relationships s/he has formed with the fine folks who PRACTICE A in the A CONFERENCE.

The problem I saw in 2009 was that people became so hung up on job titles and defining themselves. Why is there such a strong need to claim ownership over tools and techniques and pedigrees? If there is any fault with the conference itself, perhaps the IA Summit should be renamed using more inclusive UX terminology – perhaps the “Information Design” conference. After all, the fruits of our collective labor is to make stuff that collects, processes, and/or transmits information. That information may be 1s and 0s of a digital solution or it may be the information processing that takes place in my own head when I want to interact with a designed physical object. I liken our varied professions to the culinary arts. Here’s how I described it in response to Dave Malouf last year:

“How about this metaphor: Someone in the culinary or food services industry may refer to him/herself as a “chef” but we know this is not an accurate term. It is an easy term to use when “talking to the outside world” but it does not fully articulate his or her skills. Is this person an executive chef, a sous chef, a station chef, a pastry chef, a pantry chef? One could even argue that a pastry chef works on an entirely different “product.”

Now, do each of these roles have similar goals despite possessing different skills? Sure. Are some roles more skilled than another? Yes. Is one role more important than the other? It’s debatable. Can one person who wears one of these hats also wear another? Sure.

Now although you’ll likely pick apart my metaphor, my simple point is to say, “So what?” Yes, there are both similarities and differences. That’s why we use “UX” to describe a whole cadre of “tools” that can be used. I think it becomes confusing when we intermingle the skill (i.e., interaction design) with the identity, or how we identify ourself to others (i.e., I am an interaction designer). It’s the label we place on ourselves that is too limiting, IMHO.”

So Now What?

I think now is the time to shut up and stand up. Acknowledge that all of our skills are vital to solving problems. Instead of treating our differences like a pissing contest, let’s look at it like a wedding. I’ll make the appetizer, you make the entree, and s/he’ll make the wedding cake. It’s a party we should celebrate!

Let’s not get too caught up in basing our own self identity and our own self importance by what we do for a living. I have strengths and weaknesses as a professional in this “UX” landscape. If I don’t have one tool, I either get it or ask someone who has that skill for help. Perhaps the real discussion should focus on needed skills for the profession and knowing when it’s worthwhile to acquire them vs. asking someone for help. So, I think now is the time to lay our weapons down, stand up, and celebrate. Celebrate our differences. Celebrate how we complement one another. After all, if we can acknowledge that we cannot do it all or always get it right, then it becomes easier to ask for help and easier to offer help. Then let’s consider attending “UX” conferences such as the IA Summit, the UPA Conference, the Interaction Conference, et al. Then consider attending conferences that are outside of the UX world. Conferences that complement. Maybe even conferences that do not appear to have relevance to the practice of IA. Think about why you attend conferences and then choose wisely. Go to make or grow friendships. Go to learn new things. Go to expand your horizons. Go and present. Present using your own life knowledge. Teach the rest of us concepts that are outside of the traditional UX makeup but can add to our learning. Just go, but go with civility and humility.

I’ll leave you with a song of inspiration, a song I was listening to on the way home from work…yes, the day after I returned from the Summit, all tired and thrown off by the time zone change…it’s a song that inspired me to dust off my blog and say something to you today.

[Jars of Clay | “Weapons” | Lyrics]

Source of Ideas

Hinton, A. (Feb 11, 2009). The UX Tribe.
Hinton, A. (Mar 26, 2010). What am I?
Klyn, D. (Mar 19, 2010). There is no such thing as Jesse James Garrett.
Malouf, D. (Feb 11, 2009). Enough UX chumbaya!!!
Morville, P. (Apr 13, 2010). 5 Minute Madness.
Resmini, A. (Mar 27, 2009). Big rock, small rock, and chorizo sausage.
Saffer, D. (Mar 29, 2009). A Fool and a liar.


Whitney Hess on May 10, 2010 AT 02 pm

Rob, thank you so much for your kind words! It was a pleasure to finally meet you. I hope we get to spend more time together soon at an upcoming event, or at my next DC Tweetup. Ping me if you’re ever in NYC!