How Design Changes The World - Thoughts on Midwest UX 2013

By Matt Edwards


In October, I had the fortune of attending Midwest UX in Grand Rapids, MI. Now in its third year, MWUX is a relatively young conference. I’ve been able to attend each year, and watch this conference grow into an outstanding example of what makes the midwest design scene so unique. By balancing endless optimism, creativity, and curiosity with respect for pragmatism and social responsibility, this conference has never failed to leave me energized and inspired.

This year, talks and workshops focused on “Place” as a unifying theme. This concept manifested itself in many ways over the course of three days - most discussions focused on the language, communities, and characteristics of places we help create. Allowing attendees to explore the concept of “place” from multiple points of view helped us build robust understandings and ideas about the topic, which we could take back to our home offices and try out.

Through the course of these talks, I found myself focusing less on how to make a place functional or comfortable, and more on issues of personal responsibility. Many talks challenged designers to consider a simple question: “Are your designs creating a world you want to live in?” For all of our wide-eyed optimism, and advocation for the “user,” this question seems to be considered surprisingly little.

No one believes the “User Experience” has ever lived exclusively on some screen tucked away in a laptop or smartphone. The experience people have with a product, service, or website extends far before and after the few moments they spend in front of their screen. Ultimately, that on-screen experience will be a single link in a long chain of experiences. Our traditional role has been to make sure that our link in this chain connects with the others seamlessly.

That role has evolved. Today, businesses are asking people in our profession to help them design large ecosystems of services and products. As User Experience Design expands its sphere of influence, and we become responsible for more links in that chain of experience, we need to take the time to understand the increased responsibility inherent to the task. Our traditional frameworks for good UX design - making things “easy” and “simple”, for instance - will frequently fail to hold up when we are asked to design for broad communities of people (instead of individuals), or the needs of people as they move through various stages of their lives (instead of a single transaction).

This issue found its way into many presentations. Matt Nish-Lapidus challenged us to recognize the ways we already (unintentionally) influence modern culture, so we can take control of that influence and use it responsibly. Erik Dahl called on us to  start defining a design role in the development of new technologies - too often, these technologies are engineered without clear direction or sense of place, leading to reckless consequences. Sonia Koesterer reminded us that our mobile apps must fit into real-world social contexts, and our indifference to that context makes life no easier (or less awkward) for the people who live with our designs.

Design changes the world every day, even if those changes seem small. Our responsibility is to carefully consider any effects our designs have on the world. These issues won’t be addressed by carrying on in the way we have up to this point. Only focusing on individual people in highly-specific contexts will inevitably continue to create problems at different scales of time, place, and community.

As you might suspect, these talks created more questions than they answered. I’m glad to see that, as a design community, we’re not shying away from this challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing how the conversation's developed by next year, when MWUX hits Indianapolis.

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Published by Matt Edwards
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