CanUX, AWF, DUX, EPIC
This was my fall of conferences. In the last couple of months I’ve been at four of them, each where I presented or led a workshop or something. I thought I would save the writing-of-thoughts until after the last one wrapped up, and see if there’s any kind of larger takeaway to be had.
I’ll try to describe some of the things that struck me about the various events I was involved in. Of course, my friends and colleagues were organizers, presenters, and fellow attendees. It’s possible I’ll piss someone off with what I have to say, but I’ll do my best to be gentle but direct.
It’s very long. Skim, skip, or skip ahead, as you see fit.
The four conferences were:
Creative CanUX in Banff in September
About, With, and For (AWF) in Chicago in October
Designing for User eXperience (DUX) in San Francisco in November
Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) in Seattle in November
Here’s what I go to conferences for:
Share my work
Take the temperature of my professional communities
Socialize, especially with people I know and like but rarely get to see
Meet new people
Meet people I know online but haven’t met yet
Learn from other presentations (and what I learn could be anything, not necessarily the three items to take home and apply the next time situation X comes up; perhaps more vague than that)
CanUX was held at the Banff Centre, a retreat-like campus environment. The event was single-track, with half-day or so sessions that focused on including group exercises as much as presentations. The event was single-track; we all were in all the same sessions together. We stayed at the Banff Centre and we ate in the cafeteria together. It was a small event, was it 60 people?
There was a range of people with lots of experience, just out of school, with a range of experience, or with specialized expertise. But the exercises were generally fairly leveling; although there were the “faculty” (that’s what the Banff Centre called us) and the attendees, outside of the actual session where one was presenting, it was a more egalitarian environment, where even if we weren’t always learning from each other, we were all comfortable hanging together.
I enjoyed seeing presentations from friends and colleagues of mine, and I enjoyed some of the work sessions (a “design slam” – where we were given a funny and fake presentation from a client – complete with silly names and funny voices – with conflicting needs across design, business, interaction, marketing, etc. – and had to build a pitch as a group in less than 2 hours) where we got to really learn how to work together quickly more than do the ultimate job. There were a couple of interesting presentations that I wouldn’t ordinarily have had access to in my normal travels – one about storyboarding – in terms of building an animated film, and one about improv (and I’ve been involved in doing and teaching improv – so this was right up my alley) from a somewhat intellectual and definitely not performing-haha perspective). It really inspired me and contributed to some of the presentations I gave subsequently. I’m thinking about attending the Applied Improv conference here in San Francisco next year to see what I can add to my thinking and practice from that community.
It felt like summer camp (despite the slightly nippy weather) and it felt enormously communal. I made good friends, like at summer camp, and I went home feeling pretty good, and inspired.
AWF05 was the fourth installment of a student-run event. Every year it feels less student-run. This year was a confident event; they had thrived long enough to stop being scrappy and no longer needing to be the upstart event. It seems like it’s the best event for design-y and research-y types. One of my favorite things about AWF is that we never spend time worrying about definitions of the practice or its boundaries, we just get into the content. This year was a themed event (previous years had been built around aspects of process) – work and play, and as usual, that was broadly interpreted by the presenters, but overall it held together okay.
I think they try pretty damn hard to create a Big Event and I’m not sure that’s needed. For a less-than-2-day event, there were three keynotes, a bunch of workshops and even more presentations. At any time you had to choose between three different sessions. It led to a lot of chaos, a lot of stressful decision-making. If you were in a workshop, that spanned two presentation sessions, so you were missing out on four possible other things just to do one workshop – it was all terrible choices, because of course you don’t know what’s going to be good til you’re already in it and at that point it’s too late if it sucks.
Some things I went to did suck (one person spoke about globalism and research but couldn’t really seem to get into the meat of their presentation, and at the point where they turned the non-white people in the audience and referred to their “home countries” – I think the presenter was implying that non-white people must not be from the US – maybe I’m wrong but that’s how it came across where I was sitting- I got up and left), but most were pretty good. Some were very stimulating – I’ve repeated my 3-line synopsis of Adam Richardson’s Wicked Problems story several times (simple problems are where the problem is known and the solution is known, like a leaky faucet; complex problems are where the problem is known and the solution is unknown; and wicked problems are where the problem is unknown and the solution is unknown) and it gave me serious pause on my own work – what I’ve done, what I’ve done recently, where I’m positioned or should be positioned to have the most impact. Jon Friedman led a great discussion – not all the problems solved but here’s lots to think about – about interruptions and focus and technology. Dirk Knemeyer brought in some different games to pass around including an African game I had never heard of but several in the audience had actually played – and then he passed around a York peppermint patties and demonstrated the design-for-all-five senses of the product, including a pretty cool auditory effect if you put it next to your ear and slowly break it (no idea how that was discovered).
Given all the flurry of choosing between sessions every break, there were inevitably a few of us who would defer the choice in favor of a hallway conversation or two, and those were pretty rewarding and of course fun.
I will admit to some anti-climactic feelings with the event; I’m not sure why, it’s sort of hard to fault anyone for that. It was very social, lots of going out, lots of talking, lots of good ideas, lots of people to meet. I think maybe I missed the scrappiness of things a bit. It’s fun to watch people try, collectively, and if they’ve figured it out, perhaps something intangible – and very slight – has been lost.
I had never before been to Navy Pier, where the conference was. It was really far from any hotels, so there was not that serendipitous socialization that often happens. It was a 25 minute walk to the hotel, so you were either At The Conference, or Off On Your Own. That said, I had lots of fun hanging with people, and was very proud of my introverted self to be out for dinner with 7 people whom I had just met an hour or so before.
Held at Fort Mason Center, DUX was a much bigger event than the others. It sold out at 500 or something? With a huge waiting list that eventually was closed. The demand was obviously very high. It was a big deal, with tutorials beforehand (I taught one), poster sessions (I had one), panels, paper presentations, a lot of social events, and big-deal plenaries. To present something at DUX, you had to write a paper and have it reviewed by peers and be accepted.
Controversially, that process was called into question as the conference proceeded. There was a lot of crap. Crap on two levels – either the work was completely without interest and kind of ancient in approach, and/or the person couldn’t give a compelling presentation to save their life.
The format was kind of challenging, where the papers (the bulk of what we saw) were put into panel sessions of 6 or 7, with about 7 minutes each. The fact is, a 7 minute presentation is not a short version of a 30-minute presentation, it’s a completely different design and needs to be approached as such. Few made that leap, and instead just rushed us through material in a rather dull fashion. Many of us were restless and annoyed at having our time wasted; that’s really how it felt. One person began his talk by saying that this was mostly remedial material he would be presenting, and that we could tune out if we wanted. Pardon?
The quality varied pretty widely, but for the most part, it was disappointing. And controversy seemed to be not acceptable for the group. Questions that challenged someone’s work were perceived as rude and unfair to the presenter. So the community was rejecting any sense of dialogue, or standards that we were holding ourselves to.
In one session, a person from an academic institution stood up and read, without looking up, some needlessly dense prose, with no description of the work that was done or what was learned, but rather offering up some rather dismissive attitude to the museums she was serving with her work. She of course went way over time (which is very distracting for the audience; it creates a certain tension as things start to go out of control) and as the session host gestured and stood to encourage her to wrap it up, she simply continued speaking – if you’re on script, you can’t possibly adjust your script as events such as realtime require. She inched away from the sidling moderator, but she had to deliver every last word.
I was chagrined to learn from someone else who had read that paper that there were wonderful examples about taking computers to very rural areas and collect everyday stories. We got none of that. Someone asked me if this presenter realized how they were coming across and if anyone had ever taken the time to offer feedback. I didn’t believe they cared about their delivery and were setting a bar for us the audience to leap over.
This was a uniquely bad presentation (but I’ll come back to this); others were just not interesting or not well articulated.
The ones that were, however, were fantastic. Inspiring stories, challenging notions of design, and process. Daniel Fallman and Jan Chipchase wowed me with their insights and experiences and how they each brought them to life for us. I wish there had been more like that; at that point in the program it felt just too late, we had sat through too many awkward or weird sessions.
Bill Irwin who is an actor I should have heard of (but hadn’t) gave an opening plenary about the body, movement, character, and so on. He introduced the notion of baggy-pants; a comedic movement that is rooted in his heroes (Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin) and he did some amazing things from reciting an odd piece of Beckett to dancing to Peaches to The Seven Ages of Man.
Edward Tenner gave the closing plenary, and talked about consequences of technology and design that are unintended. Good stuff, although he mentioned a number of times that although he knew nothing about user research he didn’t think it was a good idea and that intuition was a better tool.
Although every talked about user research or ethnography (that was the word being used), there maybe wasn’t a lot of shared understanding about what this was. Jay Joichi’s example of “SWAT ethnography” (i.e., the client won’t pay for research or give you time in the schedule for it so you talk to friends and family) got a lot of traction, which frankly was disappointing. Sure, yeah, it’s great to get user input even if no one will pay you for it, but I felt like that was becoming the standard more than the exception. Meanwhile, if we are to believe the panel discussion all we need to do is see that someone else brushes their teeth and realize they are just like a person just like us since we brush our teeth and therefore we can empathy for them and then whatever we design for them (websites or toothbrushes or beyond) will so much easier. This was very disheartening and I don’t think I’m stretching the point that was made.
The poster sessions were awfully disappointing. Poster presenters wrote papers just like the presenters, but we felt like we had been “demoted” to provide a poster. Creating a poster requires the services of a designer and the services of a professional printer – for a cost about equal to registration for the event – several hundred dollars. And we had to pin our posters onto old bulletin boards in a drafty and ugly hallway, for the chance to stand by the while everyone else ate lunch. I guess I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my work, but I would have done better with 5 minutes in front of 500 people with an artifact that could be created for free (i.e., bits, not atoms).
Who is at fault for the failures of DUX? The damn thing was very well organized and we were provided for quite well (I guess more food at breaks, but that’s fine – Yahoo showed up with an insane recruiting frenzy, placing ads on empty spaces, dressed in special t-shirts, offering cookies and exchanging business cards for ice cream bars) with great social and communing activities. Do the organizers get blamed for the review process? The reviewers? The presenters? I’m not sure. There were some great ideas floating around to improve the next event (and other events) – focusing on a mechanism to ensure that anyone who presents is as good at presenting as they are at writing a paper that will be positively reviewed.
I was on the fence about attending EPIC for a long time; I’m glad I went but it was a fairly perplexing event. The people who inform business with “research” from users or people or customers, sometimes called ethnographers, but often called design researcher or user researchers, etc. is populated by a number of different types, depending on education and/or where you’ve worked and other factors. People from the product design and strategy consulting world, people from the market research, or advertising side of things, or people from social science academia (who may work in industry but still maintain some identity cues from that history), or people from software design/usability/interaction. And probably other communities of practice I haven’t identified. It’s interesting and fun and challenging but mostly it’s worth ignoring. Like I said about AWF, it’s proven effective not to dwell on it, but just to get on with the work and learning about the work.
Yet for those trained in academic social science, there seems to be much to be concerned about; perhaps a perceived dilution of a previously-cornered market, or the violation of approved practices (i.e., “ethnography” was a specifically defined set of activities that what we do professionally doesn’t qualify for in most cases). I’m not sure, and frankly I’m just sick to death of the angst around this. It seems like every online discussion that involves the anthro community devolves into “what is ethnography” “what can we call what you do” “who can do ethnography” “why it isn’t as good unless we do it” and so on. All wrapped in a frankly superior tone.
And yet, it’s a much more subtle us-and-them type of thing. It’s not personal. The cliché would be “some of my best friends are anthropologists” and no doubt the reverse would be true. I’ve been treated enormously well by my colleagues, with friendship and kindness and enthusiasm and support and respect. But to go back to the racism metaphor, there’s other forms besides “Go home, [epithet]” and I feel very uncomfortable with these discussions, because they never challenge my right or my ability to do the work I do, but sort of get at “people like me.”
And of course, the result of an anthropological degree is a wealth of experience, training, perspective and so on. But I think it’s silly, reductive, and not really relevant to the people that use our services to make a priori generalizations.
So that was the subtext, or even the text, of this event, for me. It was aimed at industry, but even the use of a word like Praxis to define the event was a challenge for me. Maybe I’m just opening myself up by admitting this – but praxis is not part of my vocabulary. It’s not how I speak, it’s not part of what I read. Even worse, the theme of the event was “sociality” another word that I don’t understand even after looking up the definition. So I went to this event thinking that I was the “them” to the main audience’s “us” – and to test that hypothesis and learn about it.
The first day was devoted to theory, and the second to practice. Rick Robinson gave an intelligent keynote arguing for the importance of theory to the practice itself. I would have liked to seen the talk a number of times because I believe there were many elements that went past me the first time. Eventually I realized that I don’t know what “theory” means – it’s a term that is thrown around, but what specifically is theory in the world of user research? Does it mean citing the work of someone else? I think I could move along further in these multi-camp issues if I understood – in plain speak – what tangibly is referred to by this group when referring to theory.
Meanwhile, the theory presentations emerged. And here we saw the academic tradition, I believe, where instead of a presentation or a talk, a paper was delivered. Several people in a row stood in, some without any visual aids, and read. For forty-five minutes. They read. At least one person had the ability to jump in and out of his text, make eye contact, and spontaneously offer up a clarification or a hand gesture. But others simply read. It was horrifying. The density of prose was (as with the 7-minute DUX example above) way beyond my ability to parse and it was boring and not engaging. The biggest kick for me was seeing photos in one presentation that were unceremoniously snagged from projects I’d worked in the past – although neither I nor the presenter had ever worked together, and they were certainly not involved in the projects I recognized. Interesting when that happens.
But back to the reading. What the hell? Is this standard? How is this a way to convey information or start a dialog? I got a lot of grumbling from my colleagues about this; some would have rather read the paper on their own time, rather than coming a great distance to watch someone else read it. Others just stopped coming into the sessions.
My favorite indicator of the tone was an aside by one of the reading-theory presenters, who said “this is just a diachronic example of mutuality by proxy.” I almost could figure out what that meant after writing it down and reading it several times.
So, maybe I’m dumb. And maybe some of these folks can’t communicate to a broader audience too well; presumably something that our work in the business world would require. And although I don’t feel dumb in most of my professional (or even personal) interactions, I sure did for much of this event. Based on the assumption that others could and would follow this discourse when I couldn’t. I didn’t fully test that assumption, but then again, feeling dumb is just that – a feeling.
As with DUX, a read paper could not be modified when time ran out, and so facilitators inched closer to presenters in the hopes of having them wrap things up, but no, darn it, I’ve written these 20000 words and I’m going to spit them at you regardless of what time it is. The emphasis was not on making connections between people and other people and ideas. It was really a drag.
When we broke up into smaller groups – either in workshops, on the tour of the Rem Koolhaas designed Seattle Central Library, there was a chance to interact with other, and make connections, beyond absorbing theory (or having it bounce off me). Then things started to happen; almost a relief after the barrage of Spoken Words. It was very social, the tour, and then a dinner (although the organizers supposedly oversold the event and were forced to limit the library tour and dinner to early registrants, creating an awkward class system with those included and those excluded and thus the socialization lacked something).
A funny moment at the dinner when I was introduced to an anthropologist (by another anthropologist) who asked me if I was an anthropologist. When I replied that I wasn’t, she asked “Oh, are you a designer” in a tone that suggested that it was a binary choice. Ironically (given the skill set of asking questions that I always imagine is part of the vaunted anthro training) we end up in an awkward conversation where I’m being queried down a path that I can’t really map myself onto and I have to sort of stop the whole thing to “explain myself” in a way that feels right to me. It was just weird and as I said, awkward.
This classification thing continued. At one point on the second day, one of the organizers got up between sessions and said there was a desire to know “who” was at this event, and so they took a survey where people were asked to classify themselves into a discipline. But the disciplines chosen reflected a broken orientation of the whole event – that we were all products of educational systems, and thus could be identified by (one or multiple) departmental names. An MBA is, really, a degree, not a profession. That doesn’t describe what you do, it describes what you did. At school. Not at work.
But that was the orientation, and so the question reflected the bias, and the results in my mind are suspect. I suffered what all survey-takers who can’t find themselves in the question/answer suffer – frustration and annoyance. I didn’t raise my hand during this little survey because I couldn’t or wouldn’t force myself into someone else’s classification scheme.
But I began to see that the voices in the conference – those who were asked to chair sessions or who submitted papers – represented perhaps the status quo for anthropology and ethnography – while the audience was broader than that. Again, a class system was created, where “us” and “them” were welcomed, but not fully integrated.
The lowest point to me was during one set of papers, where the session chair spoke directly at this issue of who really is good at ethnography. It was hard to parse the tone, since it was rooted in a “what if distance” but what I took away was a strong statement that anthropologists do analysis and other disciplines don’t and analysis is rooted in current theory and anthropologists have extensive training in theory. Felt like a bit of a house of cards. And it seemed like a bully pulpit to stand up there and dictate the only perspective on a complex issue.
Even in the practice sessions, the content was often opaque and unclear; it not being obvious what was done or how clients reacted. One presenter explained how they would give their clients a Geertz quote to make their points about process. I can’t imagine any business person I’ve ever worked with sitting still while I gave them some ivory-tower BS that didn’t address their very real concerns. But maybe I don’t have the right clients, or the right amount of ivory tower credibility.
The closing remarks from Marietta Baba were impassioned and articulate and basically took the whole status quo on in an attempt to separate anthropology from ethnography. Marietta liberated ethnography and sent it to the “debutante ball.” She drew from the history of applied anthropology and nicely illustrated the different places it has rested in business, government, academia and more in both the US and Europe throughout the last century. But she was fiery and funny in her opening the ethno shop to other disciplines.
It seemed like the opening and closing moments spoke to a future that addressed, or began to address, the challenge of different disciplines playing in the same sandbox, but the creamy conference filling was the Old Guard trying hard to maintain that status quo through tone and tenor if not explicit content.
So how can these groups have a practical and tactical discussion about the work of ethnography? This conference fell very short of that. At least there was some controversy and some acknowledgment that things were changing. But too many people were heard to say “well, it’s the first time” as if that excused the minimal progress that was made. This was the first time for an event branded EPIC, sure, but it’s not the first time that these people have assembled in different communities, let alone online, to discuss these issues, so let’s not pretend we’re starting from scratch. We’re in progress.
I’ll stop there. I had a great fall, learned a lot, and I’m ready for a break from conferring. Let me know what you think.