Thoughts on Microsoft Spark UX Summit

spark5.jpgThe Spark UX summit hosted and put on by Microsoft wrapped up on Tuesday and it was an interesting event to take part in. More a workshop than a conference, it was structured into small breakout groups that then presented back to the whole group (only about 30 people total), which allowed for a wide range of perspectives to be heard, allowed some good personal connections to be made, and kept conversation lively to say the least.

Debate got quite heated at a number of points actually, which is perhaps inevitable when you have a wide range of disciplines represented and trying to find common ground - software architects, software developers, and designers (mostly software but a few ex industrial designers like myself also) amongst others, and people representing both corporate and consultant perspectives.

spark1.jpgThe theme of the summit was to “empower software architects to improve UX.” As the summit unfolded this was detailed out as trying to make software architects more aware of the value of creating software that delivers high quality user experiences (UX) and of in turn promoting the value of UX within their organization. Simon Guest, the lead organizer of Spark this time around, summed up the problem today: “If software architects were building architects, we’d have lots of structurally sound buildings but one ugly city.”

At a number of points it felt like we were treading ground that was well worn already in terms of how to “justify” the value of UX to more technically-minded colleagues in software development. Sort of like a mini United Nations meeting in some ways - lots of talk without necessarily a lot of obvious progress. While there many mini epiphenies along the way for individual people (myself included) I don’t think there was a feeling that we made any huge breakthroughs or paradigm shifts in attacking this problem. But Louis Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Media (a UX-focused publisher) wisely summed up that the journey was more important than the destination in this case, and that for this reason more summits like this (organized by Microsoft or others) need to take place in order to share perspectives. It’s through these journies that many gains will be made.

I can’t possibly capture all the themes discussed during the two days, but I’ll touch on a few that struck me as most interesting from my little point of view.

spark2.jpgOne basic challenge is that neither software architect nor user experience are well-defined terms. “Immature” was the word that repeatedly came up to describe both, not in a pejoritive way but to address the fact that the boundaries, processes and tools of both are quite unclear today. As a result, analogies abounded to describe each as we grappled with the definitions. With each new analogy we would gain some new insight but then the specific differences would overwhelm and we’d get off track.

At one point the film director analogy was used and Martin Scorcese’s name was bandied around as someone who worked in a collaborative setting but “owned” the user experience vision for the “product”. I think actually the example of the Wachowski brothers is a better one for user experience. In the Matrix they created a conceptual vision that they implemented in their three films, but which had an “open API” of sorts that allowed comic book artists, other film makers, writers, fansite builders and so on to create their own extensions of the experience. This made the Matrix experience move across many touchpoints with a consistent feel, which is what you want to achieve in product development (product to web to retail setting to help desk, etc.). Henry Jenkins’ new book Convergence Culture talks about the Matrix extensively in this context.

spark6.jpgAnother analogy was to physical building architects. Unfortunately few of us really knew how architects worked, but fortunately Microsoft invited John Hill, the architect of the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay where the summit was held. His firm specializes in resorts and high end hotels, thus user experience is key to their success. That does not mean they ignore budget, building technology and engineering, and the brand needs of the owner. His talk at the end of the first day, given in an affable and low-key tone 180 degrees opposite of most “starchitects”, provided many insights into how to wrangle complexity and talk to user experience in language business people understand. Kudos to Microsoft on an inspired choice.

2by2.gifGrant Skinner made a great observation that physical building is structured very differently than software development. Software is divided up along the lines of design, technology and business. Physical building is divided up along conceptual, implementation, and business. This means that conceptual people like John Hill also have technical and design knowledge, but they are the keepers of the conceptual flame all the way through. In the current software development model there are disputes over the ownership of conceptual thinking or it is silo’d into design and often ignored by technology and business. A shift to the other model may well be in order.

In a discussion on how to communicate the value of UX within an organization the table that I was at thought up a number of parameters that had to be considered when tailoring the message. Are you in an organization that drives change more from the top-down or from the bottom-up? This indicates where you should begin your push. Are you in an organization that is “faith-based” or “proof-based”? This indicates what type of evidence you need to bring - rational and quantitative, or emotive and anecdotal. Being a strategist I arranged these into a 2x2, and put example company names into each quadrant:

spark4.jpgLastly, I had kind of a funny thought about UX while sipping from a plastic bottle of Ritz Carlton water. I noticed the nutrition label on the water, where everything was 0%. Now if you knew nothing about water and its importance to life you would think it was a completely useless and trivial liquid. It’s all around you and thus taken for granted, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, but exactly why some is good and some is bad you can’t really explain. It suddenly hit me that user experience is treated like water: on conventional business metrics it shows up as a 0 all across the board. However, user experience is something companies deliver whether they mean to or not, but they lack the means to see it or understand how to quantify what makes it good or bad. And increasingly UX needs to be treated as the life-sustaining element that keeps them alive by separating them from the competition. Achieving this requires addition of new metrics that actually reflect it.

So, thanks to Microsoft for hosting this - in particular to Simon Guest and Norman Guadagno in the architecture strategy group. It was very well run and the participants picked to represent a wide spread of opinions. Let’s hope the suggestion is taken up that other companies or organizations pick up the baton from Microsoft and hold similar cross-disciplinary workshops that cultivate discussion around the value of UX and approaches to it.

 Other blog posts: Brandon Schauer at Adaptive Path