“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Thinking differently about national/global organization’s relationships to local chapters/groups

For me, my entire existence as a UX Professional has been either in NYC or Silicon Valley (The San Francisco Bay Area of California, USA). This experience has warped my view of how best to organize the greater UX community. I am a very privileged citizen within the ranks of my national and global peers.

The reality is, that in a city like NYC you can have local chapters meetings every month for a host of UX related organizations, each representing either their own take on UX, or a specific discipline that makes up the entirety of UX. For example in NYC, there is usually a CHI, UPA, STC, IDSA, IA Meet-up and IxDG. (See footer for acronym lists.) Each meeting can have anywhere from 30-150 people depending on what the topic is. See the NYC UXNet calendar for more information.

The other reality is that there are places in the world in many places of the US itself, where doing such a collection of meetings every month serves no purpose. No one “group”, representing some axis of a specialization can create enough of a critical mass either to keep organizing such events so regularly, or to have consistent worthwhile attendance.

For example, I was visiting in Israel this past fortnight. In making plans to be in Israel I contacted some peole who were on the IxDG e-mail lists and asked if they would like to get together in some way—either formally in a presentation, or informally as just a social thing. The people I was put in touch with tried to steer me towards to the national organization for user experience, called IsraCHI. The group there seems to be active on a quarterly basis, but the turnout for events seems very high. Out of 300 “members’ (no cost to join), they get 150 people or so per event. That is pretty admirable when you have people living 1.5 hours from where meetings are. In Israel 1.5 hours means a completely new metropolitan area (1 hour even).

The IsraCHI meetings do not seem to follow anyone discipline, and invite people from many of the organizations representing the diversity of UX. IsraCHI unlike the name might suggest, is NOT an official ACM/SIGCHI chapter. It does suggest and my peers whom I spoke with suggested as well that the roots of the IsraCHI group is mostly connected to SIGCHI.

My experience here in Israel opened my eyes to a real need that the existing groups as currently organized do not do well. That is in areas that don’t have enough critical mass for representation by a single organization, there needs to be a regional group that just represents UX more generally without the implicit or specific baggage that goes along with membership by the existing organizations.

As it stands now, UXnet is NOT attempting to take on this role, though it is clear in some communities, local leaders are borrowing the local ambassador concept and warping it to fit the need as stated and modeled above in Israel (Israel is not using UXnet in any way). I believe there needs to be in the UXnet organization a way to formalize this for these areas, AND a way for the individual large/central organizations to both benefit and serve these communities.

How can the individual groups help regions like this?

To me this is where the rubber meets the road in regards to these “battles” of membership being the driving economics of these organizations. If I am a generalist it serves me no purpose to pay a fee to one organization, and if I did, it would be to my local chapter, which more “accurately” represents my regional needs and my x-disciplinary reality. But local chapters do not easily support larger organizations (and sometimes visa versa). What I have noticed is that local chapters of organizations tend to be more generalist than the organization’s original mandate. Now, some might argue that all the organizations I have listed above are generalist in spirit if not by mission, but there is definitely a large discontinuity between local and central organizations for sure.

A possible visionary solution would be to change the relationship between individual local groups in big cities like NYC. To what end has these organizations really been doing such different work? E.g. it is very clear looking at the NYC Calendar for instance that you can easily switch the group names and the events would seem just as appropriate. The exception is IDSA, which while a generalist design organization at this point does not generally have UX, related events. STC has many events that do fit the UX model of events and many more that don’t.

The different relationship would be to merge the various groups into a single entity with representation. Right now in NYC, we have a council of leaders of the various groups that currently exist. The outcome of that council was to create the calendar. Otherwise, the council serves no purpose whatsoever. In other cities there is a single local ambassador, who’s real job is to be a calendar coordinator. Yes, there is the ability for groups to use the ambassador as a nexus for generating events of synergy, but except where there are groups that are UX centric, or there is a single individual with moxy this doesn’t happen all that often and when that individual does exist there is so much bureaucratic, economic, and political crud in the way to make those events happen.

What would be the responsibility of central national and international organizations to these new UX groups? How would valuable resources that these groups offer their current chapters (which really isn’t that much btw) get to them. What I have noticed is that current chapters live off of new membership fees of their own—cheaper than their national parents, but higher than the standard lemonade stand. They also sometimes charge for events. The reality of local event economics is that space, publicity, money management, recruitment, etc. requires money. Thus they do need their own moneys.

One model that came out of the Development Consortium that was not followed up on was the model of the UN. Individual organizations declare membership at a cost relating to size and ability to pay for membership. Imagine if you will that organizations paid into the UXnet organization. And UXnet which through membership bodies deciding how to use that money can designate money to the local chapters which have more of a UX agenda than a specific agenda for a discipline or a viewpoint. This model doesn’t have to be limited to the local level, as UXnet could also plan grander events, or offer larger infrastructure services than it currently can at this point.

I realize this would radically change the economics of both the central and the local organizations. The very concept of local membership would be changed. UXnet would NOT have individual membership, but just organizational and possibly corporate.

This idea obviously needs more thought and I’m hoping that people here can engage the idea’s spirit, which is to deal with a reality, and try to find a more proper solution. The reality as I’ve described can be summed up as a discontinuity between the needs and offerings from central organizations and local chapters. Are local chapters really being served well by their relationship to specific UX groups? Are central organizations really serving their missions and their goals through local groups within the current models? I’m especially concerned where the local/regional communities do not have enough critical mass to support so much differentiation, and where they do, they seem to be just redundant communities. Could it be enough that the local groups are just local membership of the given specific organization? If that was the case, then there would be more crossover membership between local and central groups, which is not always the case. For example there are many members of BayCHI who are NOT SIGCHI members. This seems to me to be a discontinuity that is worth solving for both the local and the central organizations, and right now I see a more formalized and well funded UXnet at the core of a possible solution.

Your Acronym Dictionary:
IA Institute – Information Architecture Institute – http://iainstitute.org/
IA Meetup – Information Architecture Meet up – http://meetup.com/ia
IDSA – Industrial Design Society of America – http://idsa.org/
IxDG – Interaction Design Group – http://ixdg.org/
SIGCHI – Special Interest Group for Computer and Human Interaction (this group is part of the larger organization ACM – Association of Computing Machinery) – http://sigchi.org/
STC – Society of Technical Writing – http://stc.org/
UPA – Usability Professionals Association – http://upassoc.org/
UXnet – User Experience Network – http://uxnet.org/

Chapters mentioned:
BayCHI – The Bay Area of San Francisco, CA, USA’s local chapter of SIGCHI – http://baychi.org/
IsraCHI – The Israel CHI (Computer and Human Interaction) Group. It is not an official chapter of SIGCHI or ACM. (find URL again).

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  • http://www.spy.co.uk/ Nico Macdonald

    Generally fair points. Part of the cause is the serious discrepancy between the interests of national, local organisations and members. I have been involved with a number of organisations (the British HCI Group, AIGA, ACM SIGCHI) and can generally say that organisations tend to end up being more about self-preservation than pursuing their original goals, and will cling on to out-dated ‘business models’ that no longer serve their potential and existing members (their ostensible wider goals). I have made these points directly to the organisations, and in more public forums.

    More generally, we need to avoid focusing too much on organisational forms — which has also been a tendency in UXnet — at the expense of ‘content’. We also need to remember the ideas that first inspired our interest in this area of study and work, and remind ourselves that we (typically) want to make a difference in the real world.

    On the content issue, one of the reason I believe the AIGA Experience Design events I have programmed in London since 2000 have been a success is that attention to organisational forms (as opposed to event design) is low, and finding intriguing subjects and interesting (and often novel) presenters, and forms of presentation, is high.

  • http://user-experience.org/ Keith Instone

    Dave – thanks for sharing your experiences.

    One of the key points of the Local Ambassador initiative is that each area is different. What works in “UX rich areas” like the Bay Area and New York City will not work in the hinterlands, like Toledo, Ohio. We have no local chapters here for AIGA, HFES, UPA, ASIS&T, STC – and only sorta for SIGCHI. Likewise, Milwaukee is different, as is Italy and South Africa and Japan.

    My approach therefore has been to (1) infuse an interest in UX into broader organizations, like our local ACM chapter, Internet professionals association, and Macromedia User Group, and (2) work regionally, with folks in a 2 hour radius – Dayton, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, etc.

    What will this turn into – something like you envision above? I do not know. But I like to believe that being forced to get broader acceptance of UX and network wider than my local metro area helps me as a UX professional. The fact that Toledo is a “UX professional society dead zone” ain’t a bug, but a feature. (^:

    Also, for me, the professional organizations make it easier to build the local network of individuals. But as you point out, on a local level, the “professional boundaries” are not very important and it takes some effort to make sure they do not get in the way.

    I prefer to work at the local level, but I think it is also important to guide the folks at the top of these organizations. They might be too focused on self-preservation as Nico notes, but I sincerely believe that by supporting the right level of local involvement for their members, it will be good for them in the long run.


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