I recently learned a new concept: User Experience Design. (Thanks Devon Smith and Barry Hessenius–Barry’s Blog Interview with Devon Smith.) Once again I find that a product development/management concept from the information technology world resonates with community engagement work. (I mentioned the idea of “community manager” in How to Engage.) The essence of UX Design is fairly self-explanatory. How can the experience of the end user of the product be enhanced?
This concern in the IT industry goes way back and is likely rooted in an early realization that computer programmers were less than proficient in explaining software use to the layperson. Technical jargon needed translation into the vernacular. The transition from DOS (Disk Operating System) commands to GUI (Graphical User Interface) fueled the explosion in use of personal computers. (The number of people who could–or rather would–learn the arcane commands for DOS was limited. Icon-based “point and click” made the computer accessible to many, many more people.)
Contemporary approaches to user experience (UX) design focus on what it is like for consumers to interact with a system. Consumers include “regulars,” the old hands who know the ropes, as well as novices. In the arts, where the need exists to significantly expand the base, special attention should be given to the newcomer. How does it feel to buy tickets, arrive at, and enter the venue; find the restrooms; find a seat, negotiate intermission, and understand the sometimes-arcane rituals of applause (if a performing arts event); and get to the exit at the end? All of these are issues that have been addressed by arts marketers concerned with the user experience, even if they did not use that terminology. In addition, the nature of the arts experience that comes between these steps is, of course, crucial. Successful engagement must have “UX design”–especially considering the uninitiated–as a central consideration.
It appears that the museum world may be a bit ahead of the performing arts here. (Thanks to Elizabeth Merritt and the Center for the Future of Museums–again–for the following. Interpreting the Future of Art Museums) Several decades ago, museums began to use teams to develop exhibitions, though this was more true in science and history museums than art museums. This trend emerged out of concern that more voices needed to heard and represented in exhibition design than had been true in the past. Today art museums are adopting this model in greater numbers (ca. 30 by the beginning of 2014 according to the Center for the Future of Museums) and adding to it a new position, Interpretive Planner. This position serves the function of UX Designer, ensuring that needs and interests of the “end user” are addressed.
All of this falls under the heading of “Taking the Community Seriously” and seeking to become meaningful to it.