If Oscar Wilde were Alive Today, he Might be a User Experience Professional

  • Rob Fitzgibbon
  • May 9, 2013

I am a board member of the Boston chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), and regularly attend monthly meetings. These meetings are free and open to the public and provide a wonderful venue for professionals and others interested in the user experience field. Each meeting typically begins with a networking and noshing session over pizza, then segues into announcements and a short presentation from a guest speaker followed by a question and answer session.

The most recent UXPA Boston meeting was held on April 24th at Essential Design in Boston’s Leather District.  April’s speaker was a gentleman named Bill Hartman, the Research Director at Essential Design who is well-known in the user experience community for his prototyping class at the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University. Bill’s talk was titled “A Business Case for Human Factors,” included quotes from Socrates, Oscar Wilde and Mary Poppins, and featured references to FDA guidelines on usability engineering and cool photos of medical devices that look like a cross between a Roomba vacuum cleaner and the Lost in Space robot.

The talk also sparked a lively post-presentation discussion among the fifty-or-so attendees, and I wanted to share a couple of themes we touched upon.

The Relationship Between Design and Usability

Bill introduced this topic with an Oscar Wilde quote, “I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.” In my opinion a witty, brilliant bon mot from Wilde will brighten any PowerPoint slide. But what’s really important about this quote is it reminds us that the rather prosaic and functional term “design” that we profligately toss about on Tweets and at TED conferences has some deep 19th Century roots (although it was more commonly referred to as aesthetics or beauty at the time). Wilde reminds us that the process of making things beautiful is entwined with the process of making things useful – something which every user experience practitioner should remember.

The Relationship Between User Experience and Strategy

Bill mentioned the challenge of “being invited too late to the party.” This is exemplified when the user experience team does not have the opportunity to participate in the ideation stages of a product but is only brought in at the execution stage.

This is frequently the result of two assumptions made by a project team. The first basic assumption is that “we know our users and know exactly what they want, because they want what we want.” In psychologist circles this is known as “confirmation bias” and can be an enemy to objectivity.

The second assumption is that knowledge workers produce the most value with interim deliverables as opposed to critical thinking. A user experience professional is – as software development expert Tom Demarco reminds us – a knowledge worker. The value of a knowledge worker is their ability to solve complex problems. When brought in at the start of a project, a UX professional, with their methodologies for researching user profiles and context, can assist in defining the strategy and help the team reach the right design faster. Would you hire a landscape designer to mow your lawn?  They could certainly do it, but it’s doubtless not the best use of their time and talent or your budget.

We hope to host a user experience evening at Velir in the near future. Let us know if there are any topics that you think we should cover and we will keep you posted on our blog and over social media as the event progresses.