Complex inferiority: user experience in the UK

It’s a time of reflection in our field. However, as the drama unfolds on the mailing lists, I’ve been thinking closer to home.

Clearleft committed to UX London knowing that it would be the first major user experience conference on British soil. To an extent this made the decision easier, and gave us confidence that we’d meet our two main goals: first, to stimulate a buzz about user experience in the country and second, to create a profitable and worthwhile conference. That said, our predictions were conservative, particularly once the economy hit training budgets, and we expected steady sales right up until the event.

To sell out four months early was a wild surprise. The reason for this success (inasmuch as an event yet to take place can be called successful) is undoubtedly the calibre of speakers we’ve attracted. We targeted those acknowledged as pioneers of the field, through a simple selection process of debating, budgeting and arguing.

We soon realised that most speakers on our rapidly-expanding fantasy list were from the US. The chance to see luminaries from across the pond is a strong selling point for the conference, but I for one was disheartened that there weren’t stronger contenders based in the UK.

After all, Brits are major players in the web world. We’re the second most represented nation (10.8%) in the A List Apart survey, and in other areas of web design – particularly standards – we’ve built a strong community of practitioners and leaders, many of whom I’m lucky to know and work with.

I think it’s time to examine why the UK hasn’t made its mark in user experience.

Whither the rockstars?

Let me first explain that I hate the “rockstar” label. I use it only as an accepted term for someone widely admired who inspires others to success. Although the UK has some excellent practitioners, none has the profile or level of respect that, say, Messrs NormanMerholz or Spool enjoy.

I recently posed a question on a couple of local forums: “Who is an inspiration in our field?”. It seemed innocuous enough and elicited interesting responses, but I must confess an ulterior motive. Totting up the nationalities of the names proposed quickly dispelled my concerns that I was merely projecting personal bias:

It seems safe to say that even we don’t see our community as a centre of user experience excellence.

It is hard to disagree. I consider the canon of UX literature and can barely think of a notable British author. Even online we’ve never produced an article with the impact of ia/reconThe Cognitive Style of Powerpoint or even The $300 Million Button.

Yet our practitioners are plentiful; just watch the steady stream of job ads and recruiter phonecalls. The London IA group has grown to nearly 500 members. Fifty people regularly dedicate their spare time to UX Book Club. Yet none of us has made a lasting mark on the field.

Perhaps it’s not rockstars we need. After all, it was only last month that JJG admonished the user experience field for celebrating those famous for talk, not action. So let’s look at that action. Can we find world class user experience work on these fair shores?

Our work

Happily, I think isolated pockets of excellent UX work exist: moo.com, the impressive new graze.com, and many national news organsations can all hold their heads high. However, if we examine some of Britain’s best-known dotcom successes – let’s say LastminuteBetfairlast.fmGumtreeconfused.com – none is by any means a paragon of user-centred design, although some are improving.

I am also struck by the level of our community discussion. We seem stuck in the domain of tactics: deliverables, Visio vs. Omnigraffle, “are there studies that prove x?” This is the bread and butter of UX, necessary but not sufficient, and I’m surprised at how few people are aiming higher. For all its infuriating problems, the IxDA list is full of discussion that truly stretches the limits of our environment: UX as design activity, getting a seat at the strategy table, the future of interaction. It seems these issues aren’t yet being taken seriously in Britain, which I believe greatly limits our scope to take user experience to the next level.

Education and mentoring

Although it’s a truism to say that education doesn’t meet the needs of the technology market, Britain has few post-graduate courses that adequately prepare students for a career in user experience.

Our best-known Masters courses include UCL’s HCI and Ergonomics, the RCA’s Design Interactions, and City University’s Human-Centred Systems. I’ve interviewed, spoken with and befriended many graduates from these programmes, and have even spoken a couple of times at UCL. My conclusion is that although these courses have some praiseworthy elements, British higher education seems stuck in the mindset of human-computer interaction. Think CHI papers, Jakob Nielsen, eyetracking; interesting stuff for sure, but of little relevance to practitioners. Only the RCA is perhaps an exception, although by some reports it too has fanciful flaws.

We need universities to offer practical design tutelage alongside the important theory. Ideally, education should be challenging industry at its own game and contributing directly to today’s practice. In the US, this is becoming a reality. CMU’s Interaction Design Masters is highly regarded, with alumni including Dan Saffer. New York’s School of Visual Arts has kicked off an MFA Interaction Design with a fantastic roster of industry talent.SCAD runs an Industrial Design Masters with a healthy Interaction Design component.

Although educational protocols are different in the US, it is nonetheless notable how so many American HE courses have such strong links with industry and leading-edge practice. We are far behind, and many British students are left struggling to catch up in their first role.

Our higher education needs to change its focus towards practical design, not Jakob andCHI papers. Responsibility for this lies not just with university staff. As practitioners, we need to take an interest in the activities of our educational system. It creates the future of our profession, and we cannot afford to abdicate our responsibility to help new entrants thrive.

We must also look at the needs of those who don’t or can’t take the formal route. Mentoring is an important way for our young field to grow, yet the IA Institute’s mentoring scheme lists just four mentors in the UK, compared to 49 in the US. It’s disappointing that there aren’t more people offering this kind of support, since many new UX designers need guidance and reassurance that in an emergent field like ours we are all to some extent learning it as we go.

Job market and culture

The vast majority of British user experience jobs are based in London, a notoriously fragmented city. There are few other British cities with the critical mass to sustain a community, so it’s essential that the capital has an active scene if the national community is to take off. Yet for years it lay dormant, with only the occasional UPA event to keep things ticking over. Fortunately this is changing, and I hope London can soon serve as a community example for other cities.

Britain also faces subtle issues around the culture of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial aspiration and startup rates are measurably lower than in the US. Although I have no data to confirm this, I suspect that user experience designers in Britain tend to work in larger companies where their influence may be limited. Certainly there have been few high-growth British startups with a strong UX focus, and despite the country’s strong design heritage, 43% of Britain’s businesses don’t invest in design at all.

Personality

Finally, I believe there’s a personal angle. The self-deprecating British nature and user experience designers’ tendencies toward thoughtful introversion means this is never going to be a group eager to shout from the rooftops. However, it is time for us to ignore the shackles of cultural norms and become more comfortable with minor self-aggrandisation. We won’t get far unless we share confidence in our work, our values and our worth to business, and to do this we need to become more vocal. No one will talk about our successes but us.

A silver lining

I’m sure there are causes beyond these infrastructural deficiencies. However, the combined effect has helped to create what until recently I described as an anaemic British user experience community.

Fortunately things are changing, and I’ve grown increasingly excited at the stirrings we’re showing. We’re starting to come together socially, and are organising new events to share what we’ve learned. The recent IA Mini conference and this summer’s UXCampLondon are important grass-roots continuations of this. UX London will hopefully cause some related get-togethers, and I’m also encouraged to hear that the UPA is looking to engage further with the community.

This activity is all to be welcomed, so long as we coordinate these efforts to avoid the harmful divisions currently seen in the US. It’s important to recognise those involved in setting up, attending and talking about these events, but we can’t leave it to a few. We need others to get involved and suggest new ways to foster our community.

The future of British UX

We’re finally showing some great momentum, and we desperately need to sustain it. To this end, we need community, and we need leaders. Not rockstars, but people who can help to spearhead the user experience movement in this country. In short, we need to get Britain talking about UX if we want the UX field to be talking about Britain.

We need to be visible and vocal. We need people to share their work and their thoughts. To debate, organise, write and present. We need more people to step forward both to organise events and act as mentors. We need to foster grass-roots activity and encourage cross-pollination. Designers across the country should mix, swap war stories and become friends. Practitioners and academia should be discussing how we can be more useful to each other.

After so long in the nest, it’s time our community took wings.