• The Great Convergence

    This is a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope of two galaxies, NGC 2207 on the left, and IC 2163 on the right. They’re about 80 million light-years from here. And if it looks like they’re running into each other, that’s because they are. Even in the vast emptiness of deep space, galaxies sometimes collide.

    The interesting thing about galactic collisions is that because galaxies contain so much room between the stars, there’s very little actual colliding going on. The galaxies just sort of flow into one another, individual stars finding new places in the larger system developing around them in a process unfolding over billions of years. From the vantage point of someone living in one of these galaxies, even if you lived long enough to see the constellations shift and change around you, you still might not be aware of exactly what was going on.

    If you’ve been a user experience professional for the past few years, you may have noticed the constellations around you shifting as well. Stakeholders asking questions about customer satisfaction metrics. Conference talks about new deliverables like service blueprints. New functions arising in organizations, tasked with managing multichannel experiences. The constellations are shifting because we’re in the middle of a collision of our own.

    We’re in a collision of three different communities, with different backgrounds and different cultures, converging in the realm of designing human experiences.

    The customer experience community developed out of the marketing and customer support functions in organizations — in other words, the people traditionally mandated to pay attention to customer needs. They’ve led the charge in helping organizations create operational strategies based on measuring customer feedback, and along the way have developed a sophisticated understanding of how to make the business case for experience design initiatives.

    Originally championed by a handful of academic design programs, and finding success in the public sector in Europe, service design has now made the jump to the commercial sphere. The service design community wrestles with the operational implications of delivering services by a variety of means, including those messy, ephemeral human-to-human experiences.

    Meanwhile, user experience design has pushed beyond its origins in digital product design. More and more people have discovered that the UX toolkit, with its emphasis on the human context of use, isn’t particular to digital products. As a result, the discourse about UX has expanded to encompass the wider world of products of all kinds.

    So with three different starting points — UX from product development, service design from service delivery, and customer experience from marketing and customer support — we’ve all arrived at the same place: the realization that by consciously crafting the experiences people have with those products, services, or organizations, we can help those people be more successful and find more satisfaction. Oh yeah, and it’s good for business too.

    This convergence is happening all around us. But how it unfolds is ultimately our decision to make.

    We can pledge allegiance to one tribe or another, close ranks, and rally around a particular language and conceptual framework for our work. We can advocate for separate conferences, separate bodies of literature, separate professional organizations, in hopes that these other communities will be subordinated to our own, or maybe even just “go away”. This factionalism sets us up for an environment of friction and mistrust that will take years, if not decades, to undo. But most importantly, it will slow our progress, hindering the dialogue necessary for any field to grow and mature.

    Alternately, we can embrace this convergence, and even do what we can to accelerate it. We can reach out and foster a larger conversation across these communities. We can look for ways to combine methods to find new ways of solving problems. We can create a unified, holistic practice of experience design, enriched by the understanding that no one point of view has all the answers.

    I know which future I’d like to see happen. At Adaptive Path, we’ve been trying to build bridges between these communities for years, speaking at conferences on customer experience and service design, and inviting people to speak on these topics at our own events. We’ve also invited speakers from completely different arenas who may not consider their work to be experience design at all. We’ve seen our methods and ways of thinking evolve as we’ve brought these diverse perspectives into our work.

    Regardless of whether you work on products, or services, or support systems, there are a set of considerations that we all share: understanding how to evaluate and craft human experiences, in all their richness and contextual complexity. This is the unknown territory that we are discovering together. Acknowledging the wider community that we’re all a part of doesn’t make each of our worlds smaller — it makes all of our worlds bigger.

    The opportunity before us is both deep and wide. As experience designers, we can help organizations genuinely understand people, and integrate that understanding into everything they do. We have the potential to refashion, from the ground up, the systems of the modern world, to make them more human, and ultimately more humane.

    It is as ambitious an aspiration as any field could have. And each of us can play a role in achieving it.

    That’s what I’d like to see happen for everyone who cares about designing great human experiences — no matter how they found their way here. Because when galaxies collide, they don’t have to tear each other apart. They can pull together into something even grander. And if we pull together, we can do the same.

    [more info on the photo and photo credit here]

    There are 13 thoughts on this idea

    1. peterme

      Nearly 13 years ago, I wrote something very similar:
      http://www.peterme.com/browsed/browsed040101.html (acroll down to April 15, 2001).

      It’s titled: “Where we’re headed with “experience design,” “user experience,” “information architecture,” whatever.”

      The core thought, as I expressed it:
      Here’s what I believe happened. For the last 100 or so years, a series of design disciplines have developed into fairly well-defined professions. You’ve got industrial designers, architects, graphic designers, interaction designers, information scientists, etc. etc. They’ve all been toiling away at their various problems, understandably ignorant of the works of other designers, because the products these designers made were all so distinct. A automobile dashboard is not a building is not a subway map is not a software interface is not a search-and-retrieval system for massive amounts of data.

      And then the Web happened.
      (Cue chorus angels, and light streaming down from above.)

      And all these different design professions ran headlong toward this new medium, because they saw the value they could bring to this new medium. And they butted heads with a resounding THUMP, and, staggering back, wondered who these *other* designers were, and why they were all jockeying to do similar work.

    2. Kathy Wagner

      Great article, and I couldn’t agree with you more… except on one point: I’d include content strategy as a community that’s increasingly impacting, and designing, human experiences. All communities you listed create frameworks for human experience, but none of them sufficiently consider content as a critical contributor to the experience. Similarly, content strategy creates frameworks that don’t typically consider the experiential elements outside of content to a sufficient degree.

      I second your desire for all experience designers to integrate, collaborate, share, and unite.

    3. Robert Shafik

      Fantastic read! I agree the convergence has happened long time ago but I don’t agree that all experience designers should seek to integrate. Convergence is only one part of the equation as diversions also take place… Looking at the bigger picture, This seems to be a sociological phenomena where players within emerging professional fields attempt to define their areas of expertise, and the “rules of engagement” while creating a coherent body of knowledge. This will go on until all these intersecting fields of expertise define their boundaries and gates and gatekeepers will soon follow. The evolution of journalism as a profession offers a good example as it went through similar changes before becoming a bit more institutionalised and of course as we all know this has now changed because the web has fundamentally changed the rules of engagement ..

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    6. Matthew Milan

      Great metaphor Jesse!

      There’s definitely a convergence going on, and with arguably even more fields & disciplines than the ones you’ve keyed in on here.

      An observation of mine related to the ongoing development of this converging practice: while there’s lots of mixing and converging with respect to methods and methodologies, there doesn’t appear to be much convergence with respect to mindset. This could be because the “design” mindset in these fields is already quite similar, but it could also be that there just hasn’t been that much focus on the development of mindset in some of these fields. Mindset is something that needs consideration if these converging fields are going to use design as a “way” of knowing and acting going forward.

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    8. Touchpoint Dashboard

      Great post! I love how you specifically call out the common thread that is uniting our various “galaxies” (i.e. “…the realization that by consciously crafting the experiences people have with products, services, or organizations, we can help those people be more successful and find more satisfaction…). Well said! I think we’ve all come to realize that this consciously crafting of experiences cannot be accomplished in a silo. That’s the beauty of design thinking methodologies and the various tools associated with it (like journey mapping) – it brings teams together and ignites innovation so we can design and deliver incredible experiences. Thanks again for the awesome post!

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    11. T S S Ganesan

      All will have to meet at one point ie., “Designing for Human Experience” at some point of time.

      Thought provoking post.

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