Interaction design is not an island

Recently, someone called me up from a large media corportion asking for a training course in website interaction design. They told me they wanted to know what to put above the fold, and how to make a good navbar. They said they could use this best practice knowledge to win battles with editorial and marketing staff about how microsites should be designed.

Fair enough. That stuff is worth knowing, even if you can’t always get it down into cast iron guidelines (“it depends”). But, I pointed out, knowing today’s take on best practice interaction design will only have limited impact on the final user experience. That’s because user experience emerges from the efforts of so many different parts of the organisation. The developers need to deliver that the users need, the front end coders need to create standards-compliant XHTML, the editorial staff need to communicate meaningful and comprehensible information, the bsuiness folk need to think about how it will make money. And someone in charge (producer/product manager/e-commerce manager/…) needs to drive the whole thing in a meaninfgul conceptual direction. A good user experience is the product of the organisation behind it. And everyone needs to be pointing in the same direction to achieve it.

Getting everyone pointing in the same direction is hard. UCD requires people to do things in new and potentially unsettling ways. There are two and a half ways to persuade people and organisations to adopt UCD, that I know of:

  1. ROI models, and case studies
  2. Running usability tests
  3. (Tactical web analytics)

So I suggested a UCD training course to my prospective client. One which would tell the designers how to “mount a campaign” that will convince an organisation of the value of the work, and steer it to a successful conclusion.Yes, came the reply, but. Really we just want to know how long the page can scroll. And whether orizontal navbars are ok. The site concepts come to us fully formed from the editorial team and we just paint them up. We’re not going to be able to change the product development process, and it’s not really our job to try.

I proposed an interaction design course, which will be fun and useful. But I couldn’t help thinking: if you really want to see great user experiences going out the door with your name on them, you have to take some responsbility. Good interaction designers should have the quality of the total user experience foremost in their minds. They are the people who should “get it” and lead the rest of the team towards a user-centred approach.

Recently, I attended SPARK UX, a symposium about UX and software architecture hosted by Microsoft at Half Moon Bay in California. In one of the many chats that happened during the two days, Jeff Patton told me about the term “single ringable neck”. It’s a term that sums up cutely with the idea that ultimately you need one person to be responsible for a project – or in this case, the user experience. And that person should, in my book, be the interaction designer.

Responsibility and power need to go hand in hand. Power is earned through effort, results and a willingnessto accept responsibility. Allan Cooper, in “The Inmates are running the asylum” talks about “skin in the game” – the idea that if you’re not seen to be the one who will suffer if things that go wrong, people on the development team won’t take you seriously.

Ultimately, I was hoping to persuade my prospective client to put some skin in the game, and begin the process of raising the quality of interaction design at his organisation. We’ll start slowly with them – thinking about detailed interaction design.

You have to start somewhere…