I got back from @uxlx this week. My write up of the conference will be @johnnyholland later this week. The conference was quite excellent. The diversity and quality of attendees and speakers felt unprecedented to me which combined with the venue and surrounding city made for a wonderful event.
What I want to focus on comes from the closing keynote by one of my fave UX speakers, Jared Spool (@jmspool). His talk was entitled “The Dawning Age of Experience”. In this talk he outlines the qualities of organizations and designers that have led to the design of great experiences (also successful from a business perspective, as well). In this talk, one of his main points was that great experience design is not open to introspection.
I found the use of this term odd and later asked Jared to clarify. He stated that it is not his term, but is a means of explaining results which cannot be easily explained, deconstructred, or codified. He gave 2 examples outside design that were really interesting. The first was about a group of people who can determine the sex of a baby chicken (chick) well before we can through other means with pretty good odds. Well in excess to the 50% that we are all born with. After outlining the “sexing of chicks” Jared explained a similar phenomenon amongst midwives who are able to determine a fetus’ weight with much higher accuracy rates than any medical device or doctor’s procedure in practice today.
Then Jared spoke about how this plays out within design. He explained that he was once invited to an important conference by AIGA. At one point during the conference a creative director of an interactive agency was reviewing their redesign of the Wall Street Journal. Coincidentally, Jared and his company UIE.com had just completed a review of the Wall Street Journal and other financial information sources for a project he was working on, and so he was not listening without some background to the topic of the design. It turns out that the designer nailed the design. He outlined every major point mentioned in Jared’s report and executed on those points really well.
Jared took it upon himself to question the designer. The designer claimed to have done no research–none. He was able to explain why he did what he did but he couldn’t explain how he did what he did. He could not approach it with introspection. He just did it.
How does this happen? It comes from the type of education that is not seen amongst the columns and pig skin diplomas of formal education. It comes through deep & sustained practice within the confines of relaxed mentorship. This isn’t to say that basics of craft and concepts of design thinking and supporting social sciences and humanities that make great designers can’t come out of today’s formal design education. However, the model of apprenticeship is something that is hard to replace in the school setting compared to out in the field.
In a class today, we discussed this topic because I found myself giving directions and not being able to fully support the direction and didn’t want to make shit up in front of my students. I related this story and said that basically, I just know. I know because I’ve tried so many permutations within my years of practice and have found out through all those failures that this is the right answer.
Then I remembered a very long conversation on the IxDA discussion list. The originating post was made by Jim Leftwich, now a former board member. In his originating post and the subsequent conversation he attempted to clarify what he meant by something he dubbed “Rapid Expert Design”. His explanation of his apprenticeship and working system left many aspects unexplained, but more importantly actually tried to codify how the system works.
During the conference I had opportunity to speak with Luke Wroblewski about apprenticeships. She said that everyone who worked under him he has thought of as an apprentice to him. I know for my short spells of management I tried to think the same way, as well. But I still have pause for a few reasons. I don’t think that most UX design managers do think about apprenticing their direct reports and almost even more important, I do not think that employees understand that they are being apprenticed. First, this relates to the culture of rewarded failure that Jared speaks about in his talk. So few organizations have this culture. I have worked at many and I haven’t ran into 1 that has it, and that includes working directly for creativity-centric organizations like advertising agencies. Second, in the UX community where way too many of us do not have any formal (or even informal) training in traditional design or visual communications we’ve never experienced what a real apprenticeship studio looks like. Even many programs today are more focused on imparting chances for practice over having practice being part of an apprenticeship experience. Third, it is rare that upon hiring employees feel that they are entering an apprentice environment. I have never heard a hiring manager put in their job description that they are looking for an apprentice. Basically, we are made to feel as if our employment is the equivalent of being converted from a human being into a cog into a machine.
My entire career has been one where I’ve been hunting to be an apprentice. I know that it is not something that requires direct overt invitation. The closest I feel I came to that for myself is in my previous job at Motorola Enterprise Mobility, when I got to work with the amazing (and humble) Ted Booth. He is currently the Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design. Unfortunately, for me he took that position at Smart months after I joined Motorola, so I was not really able to get the long term impact. I did learn a lot from other peers there in an apprentice like way, but the lack of depth in any one area, and the lack of closeness in discipline made it difficult to sustain an apprentice-like atmosphere.
All this begs the question of what an apprenticeship should look like? How can an organization set up such an experience? I may take this on as part of a more broad discussion about design education, formal and informal in the coming weeks. For this article, I’ll conclude with the thought that definitely within the user experience experience the concept of apprenticeship needs revitalization. Even in more traditional design disciplines economic forces are making it hard for well meaning organizations to sustain the requirements that make apprenticeships work.
More soon, I hope!
[I also want to add that having a “mentor” is not the same as being a part of a thorough and formal apprenticeship.]