Raising hackles at the IA Summit 2008

jared   Jared Spool: Journey to the centre of Design
Jared Spool’s opening keynote was perhaps deliberately inflammatory. If you go into a room of IAs and say UCD is dead you probably run the risk of losing half the audience within the first two minutes.

However, provocations aside, Spool raised some important issues that we need to figure out if we are working in a commercial environment where IA and usability are often questioned as being expensive luxuries.

UCD as dogma

His first observation was that companies that design with a UCD process are missing a trick. If the 20% of your users provide more than 80% of your revenue than designing for all users is inefficient. In effect UCD is an inefficient methodology that has become dogma.


Spool states that he challenges anybody to show him a product that has been developed in a UCD way that was deemed as a success. He argued that the iPod was developed without this methodology, 37 signals famously ‘design for themselves’. I thought this was over stepping the mark a little but it was all good theatre – let the show go on I guess.

What defines the best teams?

Making the observation that the best teams actually did away with parts of their methodology, Spool gave us some research findings into the best teams in the design world.

He stated that the best teams;

  1. Ignored elements of their methodology
  2. Focused on tricks and techniques to make things work better for each team member
  3. Constantly exploring new tricks and techniques for their toolbox
  4. Used a process as a recipe of techniques different for every application, not a step by step, or a one size fits all

The teams that were struggling were those chained to their methodologies and become entrenched in a kind of dogma. Spool talks about dogma as ‘unquestioned faith independent of any supporting evidence’.

Perhaps its best to forget about the word, but more importantly how we see dogma in business culture. Those that innovate, shrug off agreed ways of doing things, and take a free-thinking approach to practically change their environment and working practice.

In any working process people are the most important factor in a successful project, the team has the biggest part to play, and how it operates is key.Spool neatly reasserted this by telling the stone soup story, but it effectively encapsulates the collaborative model I wrote about here.

Qualities of innovative business cultures

Finally and most memorably, aside from the amusing audience participation routines, Spool covered 3 core UX attributes. Personally  I think they are more like the defining qualities of the cultures of successful innovative companies.


Photo from

Bart Vermeersch’s Photostream

  They exhibited the following typified by a simple sentence;Vision:

"Can you go up to anyone and ask what the design will do five years from now?"

Feedback: "In the last 6 weeks, have you spent more than 2 hours watching someone using your, or your competitor’s, product?"

Culture: "In the last 6 weeks, have you rewarded a team member for creating a major design failure?"


In summary, Spool stated the need to focus on informed design and reward mistakes. Though I felt his conclusion lacked the bite of the start and the momentum of the middle, his keynote set just the right tone for the next 3 days.

The speakers throughout IA Summit 2008 have challenged us, (uncomfortably at times), to think differently about our work and roles in this ever-changing landscape.

Informed design decisions should be at the heart of what we do of course. Design research is at the bedrock of the work we produce.

But we need to be free to experiment and not become too concerned about making mistakes. Innovation can never thrive in a culture of blame, constrained by

It is important we focus on the three statements above but perhaps it is the decision makers who need to be asking these questions and getting their UX teams to act on them.

As a footnote to this I discovered this post by David Armano from the Critical Mass blog.

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