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AskTog, August, 2003
It's Time We Got Respect
||October, 2003 Update
Organizing the new group is underway. Challis Hodge, David Heller, Jim Jarrett, Rick Cecil have formed a steering committee and the first discussions, centered on the new name of our profession, have taken place.
The concensus for the name of our profession is "Interaction Designer." One compelling reason for chosing this name, rather than the "Interaction Architect" I had proposed is that a growing number of jurisdictions forbid the use of the name "architect" by anyone other than a building designer. It is also confusingly similar in sound to "Information Architect," a title already in wide-spread use.
I am quite happy with the result. It was never my intention to thrust a name upon the group, but rather to launch a debate.
Visit the new group to find out what is happening and to get involved.
-Tog, October 28, 2003
"I have met the enemy and he is us."
When Pogo mouthed these words so many years ago, he must have been thinking of software designers, or interaction engineers, or human interface folks, or whatever we who create the interaction model for our products are calling ourselves this week.
We've been complaining bitterly, these last 25 years, that we get no respect, that we are thought of as nothing more than decorators, if we are thought of at all. Guess what? We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have sat on the sidelines, perpetually powerless, whining, instead of changing up the game so we can win.
With a little effort by many and a lot of effort by a few, we can reverse our static cycling, do so in a short period of time, and end up with not only respect, but expanded choice of employment and more money, by changing the mind-set of our own employers and radically increasing the number of companies that feel compelled to hire people with our unique and demonstrably valuable skills.
Doing it right
Let's look at a group that has done things the right way: the human interface testers.
Ten years ago, these guys were a sorry lot. Few people even knew such people existed; even fewer used them. Those few who did use them paid them little either in money or respect. Even those who found them important really thought that testing was all they did for a living. Then, the "testers" decided to do something about it.
First, they branded themselves. Yes, I'm talking branding, that bane of existence of we client engineers, or whatever we're calling ourselves this week.
I've tended to think of branding as that non-functional graphical clutter marketing wienies foist on our web sites, making it almost impossible for people to actually use them. Why would we, pure human-computer interaction designers that we are (as we're calling ourselves this month) want to mess with such a disturbingly "Madison Avenue" concept?
Because we want money. Because we want respect. Because we want a job. Because we want our products and services to actually work.
In case you haven't noticed, human interface testers have disappeared. Now, if you want your human interface design tested, you're going to have to get yourself a Usability Professional.
The old testers selected a name that demanded respect, and they have branded it by consistently using it on their resumes, their business cards, their web sites, and within the name of their professional association. They also chose a name that easily encompassed all of what they do, including heuristic evaluations, user & task analysis, field studies, and even human interface design, for their many members who "wear both hats," etc.
Certainly their battles are not over. Most companies still don't test, as is more than obvious, but those that don't at least now know they are failing to do something they really should be doing. Such are not the circumstances for we user-experience flower-hoppers, or whatever touchy-feely name we might be calling ourselves this fortnight.
Usability Professionals Association
The central mechanism the usability professionals use to support their brand is their professional association. The Usability Professionals Association, or UPA, serves several functions that effect respect and increase jobs and pay:
- It initially established the brand by incorporating the occupational name of its members within the organization's name.
- It has actively promulgated that brand.
- It offers both beginning and continuing educational programs to increase the professionalism of its members.
- It provides a forum for practitioners to share their experiences and gain practical knowledge, again increasing their professionalism.
Our Current Resources
So what do we have on our side of the aisle? Here are four organizations that provide services to design practitioners:
The UPA today welcomes design practitioners to join their membership. When I first wrote this article, I was unaware of the extent of this effort. While the UPA has done an excellent job of increasing industry awareness of and generating respect for their usability evaluators, they have not made a separate and distinct effort to brand and promote designers/architects,. something necessary if designers/architects are to gain the same respect as evaluators.
The Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction of the ACM, its annual conference, and its proceedings offer a wealth of useful information about the future, as well as the results of basic research evaluating what we have today. CHI, however, was created by and for college, university, and corporate advanced technology groups to share their research with their colleagues. The founders even took some effort in creating a name that was not to be used as a title, defining CHI as computer-human interface, but the work done by its members as human-computer interface. In early years, we practitioners were invited to the party strictly to observe. While today, the presence of practitioners has increased within their programs, it remains in the context of CHI's fundamental research thrust, with practitioners presenting case studies and such. CHI cannot and will not act as a practitioner's "guild," as does the UPA.
- Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
This group is primarily populated by PhDs and IEEEs concentrating on the more technical aspects of human factors. Their conference and proceedings can supply a "hard:" element to our somewhat softer field, but they are not a candidate to be our home group.
- Nielsen Norman Group, et. al.
The Nielsen Norman Group (of which I am a principal) and other similar organizations are firmly focused on practitioners.
These organizations put on conferences featuring real-world-oriented tutorials, they turn out reports with immediately useful information, and they will, of course, show up at your doorstep, for a price, and help train your own people in the interaction design and usability techniques.
Conferences (see self-serving advertisement to the right) typically are designed to facilitate both gaining knowledge and skills, as well as networking with other practitioners in the field.
They are good as far as they go, but they are not enough.
A New Beginning
We need a fundamental shift in how we perceive ourselves.
We will get no respect until we respect ourselves, until we think enough of ourselves to stop skulking around under aliases.
Step 1: Name Ourselves
We must have a single, universal name for our profession, regardless of whether we are doing the interaction design of a traditional computer application, a web site, or a computerized product, from an oven timer to a jet aircraft
The name must:
- Be perceived as powerful.
- Be clear, offering enough specificity that outsiders know either at a glance or following the briefest of explanations what we do for a living.
- Be memorable, so once heard or learned, people will forever know what we do.
- Be broad enough that it allows us the latitude to impact every aspect of our products, rather than resigning us, as have some titles of the past, to being mere decorators, brought in to cover over the holes after the damage has already been done.
- Be universal enough to enable all of us who deal with human-machine interaction to use the same title on our resumes and business cards, helping establish that all-important brand.
"Usability Professional" covers these bases quite well for our sister profession. Its only area of weakness is in clarity, in that it doesn't quite say what these people specifically do in the field of usability. Having been saddled with the title of "tester," with established negative connotations and narrowness of scope, they were loath to use that term. Instead, they opted to couple the specific term, "usability," with the less-specific term, "professional," that, while somewhat vague, clearly emphasizes power, which is Criteria One.
First, titles we shouldn't use
Two terms we should avoid:
"Engineer" fails as a universal name, because most "real" engineers will reject a software designer who attempts to coopt their title. While a few companies dub their interaction designers, "engineers," either simply because they work in engineering or because it was the only way a manager could sneak interaction designers in the door, most organizations, as well as individual engineers would fight such an attempt, unless the individual were proficient in both fields.
I have worked with people highly sympathetic to interaction design who have recoiled in horror at my suggestion they actually hire an interaction designer. Their have told me flat-out they could not hire such a "designer" because their engineering-trained executives would not allow squandering company money on such "soft" people when they could hire another engineer. Besides, they already had a graphic designer to make things pretty (if unusable).
"Designer" is perceived by the predominantly male population of both computer company management and engineering as a wimp word. It's unfair and, I believe, sexist, but that's the way it is. Top-flight graphic designers in the computer software profession generally are lucky to get 70% to 80% the salary of their engineering peers, and don't receive a fraction of the respect they deserve. System architects, on the other hand, receive well over 100% of what the average engineer is paid. (I can't comment on information architects; I've never seen a salary survey.) Something needs to be done about the graphic designer situation--a good graphic designer can make or break a project or even a company--but doing so is beyond the scope of this effort.
Engineers also have trouble differentiating between graphic designers, who primarily limit themselves to the surface of the interface, and interaction people, who, like building architects, need to concern themselves with each and every aspect of a project, right down to core technology decisions. (Read my other recent article, Think Globally, Act Locally, to see the disaster that can result when this attention isn't paid.) Continuing to put ourselves in the same camp with graphic designers, no matter how unwarranted their situation, is self-defeating.
Add to this list anything soft and/or touchy-feely, such as "user-experience." If we are to be accepted as peers by engineers and other "hard" technologists, we have to appear hard ourselves. (Note I didn't say, "taken seriously by engineers." That's somehow become our goal, and it is a weak goal, indeed. Those "taken seriously" are still one step down. We need to be seen as peers. We can be and we shall be.)
||October, 2003 update: The community has had an exhaustive discussion of names and settled on Interaction Designer. I have left my arguments that follow for historical reasons, but unless you are interested in such history, I suggest you jump down to Step 2: Brand The Name
I have spent the last several months thinking about and talking with others about this issue, all the while casting about for a new title for our profession. I have kept returning over and over again to the one title that seems to perfectly fit: Interaction Architect.
"Interaction" unlike "interface," is powerful, not passive, going so far as to incorporate the highly-charged power word, "action."
"Architect" is a power-word equal in status to engineer. The top systems engineers inaccurately adopted the title, "system architect," to describe their function analogous to the structural-engineering function in the building trades. At first I saw their use as stumbling block, but we have all kinds of engineers; we have all kinds of designers; there's no reason we can't have several kinds of architect. The systems architects have actually done us a favor, by establishing "architect" as a power-word.
Information architects recognized the power of the title, adopting it to describe their own roles as designers of the structure of information.
We truly are architects in the traditional sense of the word, architecting the interactive "spaces" in which our users "live" and work. The term is rightfully ours, and we should use it.
Everyone in the computer profession now knows what interaction means. Even those in other fields, such as consumer product, automobile, and aircraft design are likely to grasp its meaning without explanation.
At first, we may need to establish the "architect" part of the name with the briefest of explanations. People will likely understand what we do, but wonder why we are suddenly calling ourselves architects. As time goes on, the new name will be as familiar as MasterCard is to us now. (Remember when it was "MasterCharge"?) That's what branding is all about.
"Interaction" is the unique part of our name, just as "Usability" is the unique part of the usability professional's name. "Interaction" is a common, accepted term in the world of computers these days, so no memorization will need take place for that large segment. Even in the earliest days of the term, I never had an industry person ever question me a second time after learning the meaning of interaction. Once they learned what it meant, they "got it." People in our related industries who may have somehow escaped the term to date will "get it," too.
Because "architect" has a concise, commonly-understood meaning, while "professional" is vague, people should actually do far better in re-describing the work of the interaction architect than recalling the work of the usability professional.
"Architect" is a broad term; "designer" is not. Architects are expected and required to take a holistic approach to their work. They don't work on paint colors and furniture placement, while the engineers or building contractors figure out where to put the walls and staircases; they work beside them, specifying the user experience in every aspect of the construction.
The engineer doesn't design the climate control system while the architect is off making the roof pretty. (An engineer, left to such a decision, would likely design a system with one zone and a thermostatic control just next to the furnace in the basement, making for minimal wire run.)
Instead, the architect might specify the system in terms of its effect on the user, such as " must maintain temperatures plus or minus one degree throughout the year, with individual temperature zones no bigger than a single cubicle, with simple control of the system within easy user-reach" leaving it to the engineer to "work out the details."
This does not leave the engineer as some impotent servant: He might well respond that plus or minus one degree is too tight to be practical--three degrees is doable--but he can go one better than the spec by offering "travelling micro-zones" that actually move from room to room with the occupant, so the occupant, based on her stored temperature settings, is comfortable whether sitting in her own cubicle, the cafeteria, or the conference room in the next building. (Such systems have been built experimentally and do work.)
Building architects and engineers thus are closely-coupled on every aspect of the project, as a team, with the architect there from conceptualization to inspector sign-off. We interaction architects must work in equal partnership with our engineers if our products and services are to be successful. As "architects," we set the expectation that we will do so.
"Interaction Architect" is a universal enough title to enable all of us who deal with human-machine interaction, across a broad front of products and services, to use the same title on our resumes and business cards.
Step 2: Brand The Name
If you agree with me that now is the time to finally decide to what profession we all belong, then please:
- Send this article to everyone you know who does interaction architecture.
- Talk about the new name at work to your fellow architects and the rest of the people you work with. Explain to them that your profession has finally adopted a real name, and you want to use it.
- Talk to your boss about the name and the representative responsibilities and, if he or she will allow it, order new business cards now.
- Talk to your human resources people and educate them as to the new name and the encompassing responsibilities, so when other managers specify "interface designers" or some such, HR will set them straight.
- When headhunters call, educate them. These are the people who talk to a lot of employers and can help spread the word.
- Start talking about your job in terms of architecture on a day-to-day basis. Get the managers and engineers you work with used to the name.
The name, "interaction architect," may take you a couple of days to get used to. (Remember how weird it felt when "Bankamericard" changed its name to "Visa"? A visa was something you got to go to foreign countries, not to buy your groceries.) Just dive in and start using the term and, after about three days, it will feel like you've been using it your whole life.
Those are the small tasks that each of us can do. Then, there's the big, critically important one. Someone reading this, perhaps you, has the drive and skill to pull it off.
Step 3: Build the Interaction Architect's Association or SIG
We need a non-profit professional association to accomplish for us what the Usability Professional's Association has accomplished for usability evaluators. It's goals will be to:
- Established our brand by incorporating the title we choose. This could be accomplished by a new organization called, for example, Interaction Architect's Association (IAA), or through an extension, such as a SIG or other organizational structure, of an existing practitioner's organization, such as the UPA. The profession's name must be reflected in the organization's name, however. That is vital to branding.
- Offer both beginning and continuing educational programs to increase the professionalism of our members.
- Provide a forum for practitioners to share their experiences and gain practical knowledge, increasing their professionalism.
- Publish cost benefit analyses showing the value proposition of using interaction architects, vs. having engineers guess at design.
- Actively promote the brand through PR efforts, "educational" materials, etc.
- If an independent organization, form bonds with the Usability Professional's Association, et. al., to our mutual benefit.
I started an already-lively discussion group devoted to this issue at the time of first publication.
The goals of this group were to:
- Form a consensus as to a single, uniform name for the human/machine interaction profession. You've heard my vote and my reasons. What's your opinion?
- Determine the best way to unite, be it a new IAA organization or a SIG within an existing organization.
- Find a leader who will get the ball rolling.
The group is now headquartered at http://InteractionDesigners.com, Please join the discussion group now and let your voice be heard. I will be "listening," but I want this to be your discussion, so I will only "horn in" from time to time.
I've also been "fine tuning" this article as I find out more information through the discussion. For example, when I first wrote this, I didn't understand to what extent the UPA was catering to design/architect practitioners. Their website didn't reflect it, and all my friends in the UPA are evaluators. I would now be perfectly happy if the design/architect community chose to exist under the UPA umbrella, but only if the UPA were to make a real PR effort on the behalf of their design/architect practitioners, as a distinct effort from branding their evaluators.
Please pass this article on. Make sure the entire practitioner community sees it. It is important to each of our careers.
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