User Experience: Why do so many organizations believe they own it?

Report from a Silicon Valley Gathering

By Fred Sampson

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of ACM <interactions>. This is the author’s version.

Who owns user experience?

According to Don Norman and a panel representing user-experience professionals, we all do.

A substantial crowd of San Francisco Bay Area user-experience professionals gathered at Stanford University’s Kresge Auditorium on October 12, 2004, to discuss the topic “User Experience: Why do so many groups believe they own it?” The event provided a unique opportunity for many groups to get together in one place at one time to discuss how their work intersects. The event was organized by Rashmi Sinha and Richard Anderson, both of BayCHI, the San Francisco Bay Area incarnation of SIGCHI, with support from BayDUX (UXnet’s representative in the Bay Area) and several participating organizations.

The formal presentation was preceded by a lively networking hour that provided the opportunity for local organizations to promote themselves and their members. Represented were information architects (AIfIA), graphic designers (AIGA-ED), ergonomics (BACHFES), computer-human interaction (BayCHI and SIGCHI), computer graphics (SIGGRAPH), interaction designers (IxDG), usability professionals (UPA), technical communicators (STC), industrial designers (IDSA), and blanket groups (BayDUX and UXnet).

Leading off the formal presentation, BayCHI stalwart Richard Anderson conducted a wide-ranging interview with design guru Don Norman, originator of the term “user experience.” Anderson and Norman recalled something Norman said over a decade ago: HCI design fails because “the hard problems are social and political, not technical,” which suggests that the same problems still exist.

Norman touched upon the subject of his latest book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, and emphasized the importance of accounting for emotion and eliciting pleasure in product design. He also discussed the need for user-experience designers in all roles to be prepared to address business goals and speak the language of business to justify their contributions.

Norman and others acknowledged possible negative connotations of the term “user” in this context and commented it was not ideal. However, none offered on a more preferable term.

Anderson and Norman also discussed the effectiveness of cross-functional or multidisciplinary teams in bringing successful products to market. Such teams include representatives from marketing, development, user experience, quality assurance, support, and documentation. Norman acknowledged that the technical communicators, represented at this event by STC, are usually the last to be involved; they are frequently called upon to contribute at the last minute by being asked to explain a faulty design.

Rashmi Sinha moderated brief presentations from leaders of each organization. Group representatives were able to introduce themselves to those unfamiliar with their organizations which provided fuel for subsequent discussions. The panel, joined by Anderson and Norman, then fielded questions from the audience, eliciting lively exchanges. At one point, Norman berated one organization’s president for not including “fun” in her description of the profession’s function.

Among the items addressed was the question, “Which discipline actually ends up leading a design team?” Norman and others indicated while the project manager’s background may be varied it is the manager’s job to lead and coordinate the various members of a team. Another commentator noted that representatives from potentially related fields, such as landscape architecture and urban design, were missing from the gathering, but that their contributions should not be discounted.

While the evening’s topic implies contention over which group best represents the user, there was little friction apparent among those represented. There was general agreement that all involved in the design process should work collaboratively as advocates for positive user experiences. Further, the consensus was that it is good for business that everyone involved is accountable for user (or client, or customer) satisfaction.

Discussion bounced between the different, but sometimes overlapping, roles performed by user-experience professionals in client or employer businesses, and the complementary interactions of the relevant organizations. There was little indication of dissension between the attendant groups, and more agreement on the numerous challenges faced in finding appropriate relevance in their jobs.

It was clear from the level of continued conversation as the event drew to a close that this evening was successful and future collaborative events will be well received.

Participating organizations included:

  • AIfIA (Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture), represented by Christina Wodtke.
  • AIGA ED (American Institute of Graphic Arts Experience Design), represented by John Zapolski.
  • BACHFES (Bay Area Chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society), represented by Abbas Moallem.
  • BayCHI (San Francisco Bay Area chapter of ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction), represented by Stacie Hibino.
  • IDSA-SF (San Francisco chapter of Industrial Designers Society of America), represented by Mark Rolston
  • IxDG (Interaction Design Group), represented by Pabin Gabriel-Petit.
  • San Francisco SIGGRAPH and Silicon Valley SIGGRAPH (San Francisco and Silicon Valley chapters of ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques), represented by Brian Blau.
  • STC (Society for Technical Communication), represented by Andrea Ames
  • UPA (Usability Professionals Association), represented by Kaaren Hanson.
  • UXnet, represented by Richard Anderson.

Sponsor organizations included the Stanford d.School, BayDUX, Silicon Valley STC and San Francisco STC, San Francisco SIGGRAPH and Silicon Valley SIGGRAPH, and AIGA ED.

For additional perspectives on the event, see:

For more on this topic, look for the May/June 2005 issue of <interactions>, “Whose Profession is This, Anyway?”

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, a member of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer in the Information Management User Technology group at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in <interactions>, Volume XII.1, ISSN 1072-5520 (January/February 2005)