Saying goodbye to the UX echo chamber

I’ve spoken at a number of UX design conferences in the past, though it’s been a while. The past two years my proposals have been consistently rejected, the latest being a rejection of all three of my proposed panels by UX Australia. I’ve rationalized this rejection in various ways – I’m not a well known “name”, my proposal wasn’t strong, my ideas weren’t original or appropriate to the audience… but I’ve moved past rationalization.

I’m now no longer going to try.

I spent some time asking myself – why did I want to speak at conferences in the first place? My introspection revealed that it was because I wanted to be on stage, the center of attention. It was less about wanting to share and teach and present my ideas and more about building my reputation… and stroking my ego. Not to say that I have matured past that (all creative types are self-centered) but at least I’m conscious of my own motivations.

I’ve also slowly, over time, changed my opinions about design conferences. I think that design conferences are now more of an echo chamber than anything else, with everyone nodding and agreeing to the same thing. The user experience field has matured, and the point of these conferences isn’t about convincing anyone on the value of UX – we all “get it”. The maturity of our discipline means that presentations… well, they are less about education and more about self-congratulation and ego – obviously, many of these people are motivated to speak for the same reason I have been.

Design conferences are now more like science fiction conventions than a learning opportunity (and trust me, I’ve been to a number of conventions – I know of what I speak). And there’s no debate anymore: any contentious conversations are at the edges around trivial matters like eyeball tracking software – it’s like Star Trek fans debating whether Kirk or Picard would win in a fight.

Another thing that has turned me off of design conferences (and is a long-term threat to the growth of UX) is that there is an arrogance shared by many UX designers I’ve met… especially with many of the “superstar” speakers. It’s one thing to know how to do your job, and do it well, it’s quite another to think you have all the answers. This attitude is not only unattractive and off-putting, but it lacks in the one thing we UX folks must always have: humility.

I’m very concerned that ours is becoming an industry of pride & arrogance instead of one about learning, understanding & helping users. I never want to think I know how people think and am always “right”. The discovery of how people live, and how we can make their lives better – that is where I always want to be. And speaking at conferences, presenting myself as if I have all the answers… well, as I stated above, that’s not who I am.

To paraphrase the second law of thermodynamics, energy is neither gained or lost – it is merely transferred. So instead of chasing the public speaking gig at design conferences, and will instead be focusing my energies on my discipline (and a book – maybe). I will still attend conferences when I can, primarily to network and keep my skills.

Finally, if I do present I want to do it where it matters, where I can make a difference – industry conferences where I can convince bankers, manufacturers, and corporation decision-makers about the value of user experience design. I want to share my ideas on how user-centered design can change their businesses, help their customers and, in the end, make them money. I want to “evangelicise” UX to people who don’t get it – those are the people I want to speak to.

And, hopefully, make a difference.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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