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YOUser Experience


What DNA does conceptual art share with interaction design? More than any technical profession would care to admit.

"The idea in conceptual art is that the artist causes experiences to happen to himself, and then ruminates on the interaction between the self and the experience; an audience may be permitted to observe, but is not essential," says Roger Ebert, in his recent (and fantastic) blog post "The agony of the body artist."

So if I was to apply Ebert's thinking about conceptual art to the discipline of interaction design, then it would read as follows:

The idea in interaction design is that the designer causes experiences that happen to others, then ruminates on the interaction between the other and his or her experience; a designer may be permitted to observe, but s/he is not essential.

Is the core activity of my profession really this simple—and this complex? We want to control the user's experience as much as possible, though it's often like grasping at soap bubbles. And unlike the conceptual artist—who needs no audience to perceive the effect of his or her actions—designers depend solely on the audience's reaction in aggregate. We spend so much time and energy trying to boil ourselves out of the work to ensure that it functions properly, it's inevitable that we have no place in the actual day-to-day use of what we create. And the cost to us is that we only have our personal experience to represent the whole.



Ebert's definition of conceptual art comes from his coverage of the work of Chris Burden, whose fame in the art world revolved around performing art pieces in which he was shot at, nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle, shut in a locker, at risk of execution, and otherwise caught in scenarios that tore down boundaries between the spectator and his own experience. When experiencing his works in a college class in the mid-90s, I remember thinking, "What will we put ourselves through to shatter the illusion that our lives are wholly within our control?" Chris Burden's "body art" work is so unsettling because it forces us to think deeply about what he is doing in the moment, empathize with his experience, simultaneously focus on him and ourselves reflexively as we watch.

It's infrequent that I find a user experience professional bleeding for a great wireframe. Look at Stefan Sagmeister's poster for his AIGA Detroit lecture, where he carved a poster for a lecture onto his own body. This seems right out of the realm of Chris Burden, where a rumination on one's body of work—the interaction between the self and experience—becomes the actual commodity we comment upon. His "Sagmeister on a Binge" poster is just as scary and points the way towards the Super Size-Me mentality, where life and limb is risked to force a deeper emotional bond between the artist/designer and viewer. We have yet to find the same kind of artistic expression in the field of hardcore interaction design... but the form it would take is definitely in the realm of conceptual art.

Perhaps the pursuit of meaning in our century will require making an audience out of designers, and designers out of the audience. Everyone will identify themselves as a "YOUser"—a term I've been using recently for the user as designer, and the designer as user. The concept of a "user" has always lacked a sense of embodiment, and anything we can do to bring how we talk about whom we design for (besides ourselves) helps to remind us of our humanity.


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