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]

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