–Engage

“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

An open letter to the IxDA community

The Interaction Design Association of today is not the IxDG or even InteractionDesigners.com of yesteryear. The organization has grown faster than the rising stock of Apple over the the short 7 years since Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini made his call to action that gave conception to this organization. This is my way to say that many of you may not know who I am, so I’m going to start with a short background bit.

In 2003 I was named David Heller. I was a UI Designer working in the Bay Area. I was a nobody who heard a call and saw it as an opportunity and to be honest a calling. For 6 years I was involved in birthing the organization through creating its first global conference. This is to say that I have a lot at stake with how IxDA continues to go and that it continues to go at all. Any success one might attribute to my career since IxDA’s founding I feel is directly related to the IxDA community. I see my future success not dependent on its existence, but definitely would be greatly aided.

As noted above the discussion list I helped found with some 600 people is now a community of practice of some 25,000+ (depending on how you do the math) with influence well beyond those numbers due to the magic of social networks. That’s a lot of growing in a very short time for a purely, 100% volunteer organization with about a $50k budget (outside of the conf) to manage infrastructure and other overhead. This all without membership fees (though we’d be no where without member and corporate financial support).

Ok, enough background …

This past February IxDA released an entire new platform for running its virtual, global community of practice. I have had limited involvement in the project (mostly in the early periods) across its 2 years in existence. IxDA did fund raising specifically for this project at various points and even allocated a large part of their profits from the conference to this project so that we can hire a dedicated technical team. Design was almost completely done by volunteers on their own time/dime.

This was NOT an easy decision for IxDA because of some of the founding “unsaid” principles of the organization that have remained in tact. The overriding principle of leaders of IxDA has been that we want the community to create the community. This is something that has been a huge part of what makes IxDA special (not unique by itself, but a contributor).

The reaction to this amazing effort has been really negative and actually toxic by way too many. Not a majority, for sure, but enough people have felt it acceptable to speak to the amazing people of this community with condescension and vitriol. For the most part I have remained out of it. I have my own issues w/ the site, but my history in the organization and my respect for those that accomplished this huge task has led me to silence (except through the official public channel of getsatisfaction.com; as is appopriate for any member of the community).

The most recent lashing out has touched a nerve for sure. The comment that seems to get under my skin the most is how can an organization dedicated to IxD put out such a bad user experience? In spirit, I’d agree with this comment, but it said with disdain and without any accountability or sense of responsibility from those who are saying it. This goes to the heart of the issue through. Which is to say, if you are not going to put up then shut up. Well, that’s what I feel on first glance.

Then I have to remember something. I have to remember that my reaction is from a person who started a 600 person discussion list and NOT a 25k member community of practice. The leaders of IxDA have said that the organization is not about consuming services and so there are no customers (paraphrasing). This is another statement I would love to agree with. Alas, I think I am finding that this is no longer possible given our scale. We can’t assume that 25,000 people in any sort of critical mass will be able to add energy to the organization as much as before.

But if that is true it has other consequences. We can’t assume that a group of volunteers on their own time/dime will be able to provide the same level of service as a pay for model. It is just not feasible to the level of scale we have achieved given the goals and needs of the organization long term. So this leaves us with 2 options:

1. Patience or Energy: Either work within the system (take the time to learn what the system is to be polite to those who created it) and wait for these things to change. This means having good faith that the people behind doing stuff have the best intentions and good heart. Or jump in and HELP and don’t be such a douchebag as to go into a friend’s house and tell them the food is bad w/o even volunteering to do the dishes!

2. Show me money or show me attention: We change the model of the organization to one that is more financially focused so that the level of quality we all want to achieve is what we can afford as an organization. This can mean having dues, or levels of membership (free & not-free). This can mean adding advertising to the site (we already have an ad model in place for the conference and many local events).

Doing this latter idea though is a major cultural shift for the organization. Our approachability and bottom-up culture would be facing challenges (not insurmountable) that we may not be prepared to face, or that would change the very nature of the organization in ways that we are not ready to live with (maybe never).

The point of this post is to address the anger and hostility. It is to get people to think before they speak with such anger about something that in the end is well not life & death and not even something you pay for and in most cases support.

I’d like to see a broader conversation about IxDA’s future. I know the board is having these conversations every day (when I say I know, it means I know the people and I know they are smart and engaged. I have no direct insights). But maybe we as a broader community need to take this opportunity to engage in this conversation. Maybe we can bring back the long dead “working group” email list for people who are interested in this conversation.

I don’t have answers because I know I do not know all that is going on. What I do know is what I see and I don’t like what my community (I say mine the same way I would say about the area surrounding my home if a criminal came into my neighbors house and I would be defending that community) is shaping up to be and despite the amazing efforts of some amazing people I am noticing more slippage and it feels like we are falling down a slippery slope.

The board of IxDA and even the local leaders who build IxDA every day are only as good as the people who contribute to the community itself. So it is only right that we as contributing members take voice and engage!

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  • http://alexfiles.com Alex O’Neal

    Personally, I see great improvement in the new site. I wasn’t able to contribute to it myself, but I’m impressed at what was done through donated, as-possible time by many people.

    I think a lot of the hostility is probably misdirected energy from the economy, a lack of empowerment at work, a need to set themselves apart in the job market, etc. Sadly, it’s always easier to put down another’s work and show “expertise” with criticism, rather than to do something well yourself. (This is not to say that criticism isn’t a valid skill, just that when it exists in a vacuum it’s not very helpful.)

    What about raising funds via IxDA-backed training? Leverage local IxDA members to provide reliable training in specific areas. IxDA sets the standards and accepts the payments; the trainer gets the street cred of IxDA backing, and half the money (via PayPal or whatever).

    I’ll volunteer to author/present on how taxonomy affects interaction design :-)

  • http://www.purecaffeine.com Nathanael Boehm

    (a copy of my comment posted on IxDA)

    David,

    I’ve previously expressed my positive impressions of the new site. Not perfect, but much better. I have to admit I don’t come here often and rarely participate in discussions … I’ve found it hard to know where to jump into the conversation; the culture of this place is a little hard to guage so for the most part I lurk and connect with my IxD peers through other means: blogs, Twitter etc.

    As someone who has worked on several system replacement projects I know people are instinctively opposed to change … not on the merits of the replacement or perceived loss of the system being replaced but merely through the act of change. It happens and you just grit your teeth and push through it till they adjust. There is simply no way to avoid it.

    Secondly, we all know plumbers always have leaky taps. People generally find it hard to apply what their skills and knowledge on their home turf. Look at all the accessibility experts out there with inaccessible non-compliant websites. Doesn’t mean they’re bad at their job.

    Thirdly, money is irrelevant … and I know this from being involved in several social innovation projects. People don’t care if they’re paying you a lot of money or getting something absolutely for free. They still have high expectations and will complain regardless. I don’t understand why, but I can testify that I’ve had to bear many such complaints and it has been particularly hard when I’m investing my own time unpaid for the betterment of civilisation. Once again, grit your teeth and push through it.

    So this problem cannot be fixed through money. It will persist.

    There are ways to try and influence a community to invoke a more positive mood that suppresses the haters, the flamers and those who just nitpick everything. I’m reading a very interesting book at the moment Design to Thrive by Tharon Howard that looks at such issues.

    But in summary, do try and influence change but don’t let this issue drag you down. It is just human nature – don’t take it personally.

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