It’s an illusion

8 SEPTEMBER 2008

I went to the one-day conference d.Construct in Brighton, England, which had the theme Experience.

Speakers: Jared Spool, Peter Merholz, Leisa Reichelt, Cameron Moll, George Oates, Denise Wilton, Matt Webb, Tom Coates.

I was disappointed with the morning’s three talks.

Jared Spool‘s talk was based on the presumption that most designers have a skill but that they cannot explain why they do what they do.

[Peter Merholz @ d.construct 2007]He described the presentation of a web design by its designer. When questioned about the different elements, the designer could explain his rationale.

Jared was impressed, saying that his company had spent lots of money interviewing 1000s of people. After much work, they had figured out what was important. He wanted to know how this single designer could know what Jared only found out by expensive and time-consuming research. The designer said he didn’t know how he knew.

The implication is that we need to pay for Jared’s research conclusions because most (new, I guess) designers need it to become good designers.

Actually, now that I write this, I still don’t know who’s supposed to benefit from research led by someone who proudly boasts they’ve never designed a web site and that they never intend to.

Let’s replace ‘designer’ with ‘software developer’. The suggestion is that people, despite having a relevant degree, can design and build applications but yet not explain what’s good about them or why they made certain decisions.

So, along comes a company that has no development experience to study people using these applications to divine what is good so that they can tell other developers. It’s bonkers.

Jared ended his talk with a card magic trick. If the message was intended to be “it’s all an illusion”, that I can agree with.

During a quick history of the design of various objects such as the film camera and VCR, Peter Merholz‘s talk included a diagram of a pyramid: technology at the bottom, features in the middle, and experience at the top, the smallest chunk.

The VCR was given as an example of something that was initially led by technology. Next, companies competed on features. During this period, VCR design neglected the user experience, according to Peter.

I find it hard to believe that a group of people sat around, decided to build a machine, later add loads of features and only then realised, ooh, people can record TV programmes with it.

The Wii, Peter said, was experience-led (a different use of the word ‘experience’) whereas I just see it as a cool controller.

In fact, what Peter wrote in the Adaptive blog about the first VCR, can easily be applied to the Wii:

“[I]n 1976 or so, the first VCRs for home use came on the scene, and that was simply a function of a new technology. The technology allowed you to do something you couldn’t do before, and that was enough.”

There’s a version on his talk in the article Experience IS the Product… and the only thing users care about.

‘Experience’ seems to be what we used to call user need.

What am I missing?

(By the way, the talks by Cameron Moll, Matt Webb and Tom Coates were
flippin’ excellent.)

Wordle: It's an illusion

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