Over on the Zeus Jones blog, Adrian has written an excellent post exploring the relationship between UX and Account Planning - He's suggested that user experience is the new account planning.
I love Adrian's blog, he's one of the people in the account planning field who really seems to understand where planning needs to go. Needless to say, I was thrilled when he suggested in the Twitterstream the other day that I should respond to his post.
Like Adrian, I've done a lot of thinking on this subject. During my time at Critical Mass, I was involved in a brilliant and sometimes messy experiment run by Dave Robertson to mesh the Account Planning and User Experience practices. In the process of figuring out the relationship between planning and UX, we ended up uncovering a number of similarities and links between the two fields, as well as some troubling concerns about the present and future of both UX and planning.
Now, not only am I a couple of days late responding to Adrian's call, I'm also going to stir the pot. So please bear with me. I am going to try and take this somewhere.
Recently, a number of leaders in the planning field shared their thoughts about the state of Account Planning at 40. It's been suggested that planning is having a bit of a mid-life crisis; middle aged and starting to look back and question what it actually is and what it has accomplished. This isn't a bad thing, but in the case of planning the changes that the web has brought to the advertising and marketing industries have led what I'll call "self marginalization" and a bit of self doubt when it comes to planning and planners.
For a field that has been around for more then a few decades, there are still lots of questions about what planning is, how it fits in, whether it is still relevant, etc. I was at the AAAA Account Planning conference this past summer in Miami, and was reminded how tenuous the state of this mindset is. There was a lot of bravado in the air, but with an strong undercurrent of unease. There's a reason why it felt familiar. This nervous navel-gazing is similar in tone to what takes place in the user experience field.
If account planning is middle aged, then UX is a middle child: insecure, petulant and seeking validation. Whether trapped between account and creative in the agency world, or fighting between business owners and technology inside large organizations, the mindset of perceived marginalization exists in the UX world as well. While some folks hold their heads high and confident, for many practitioners the UX role is one fraught with uncertainty about how others perceive the value of their craft. There's a reason for this uncertainty in my opinion - planning and user experience are hard to define by nature. If you're always a bit fuzzy, you're never really sure how you're going to justify your existence.
Just like Adrian suggests that Planning is a postmodern discipline, I've also suggested (as have others) that Information Architecture, one of the core disciplines that make up the UX field, is postmodern in nature. While I'm glossing the analysis over a bit, it's a notion I'm also willing to spread as a blanket concept to the UX field in general with the caveat that it's not evenly distributed. IA is more "PoMo" than Usability and vice versa. That being said, where there's foo, there's fire.
Whether you want to call it being postmodern or just "fuzzy", the complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, etc, of what makes UX great also contributes to its challenges. As an example, the "defining the damn thing" conversation is a constant source of grief within the IA field, and yet people can't avoid revisiting it. UX practitioners in many cases focus too much around justifying existence and not enough on just showing value in context. This may be an opinion, but when I look at the history of the planning field, I see many parallels. Both Planning and UX rose up to deal with the complexity of environments; the media environment and information environment respectively. They both focused on understanding how to connect with people more effectively. They attract the same people; synthesizers, problem solvers, curious types with one foot in the creative world and the other firmly analytical.
A lot of talented people fell into UX over the last 10 years, as did a sizable cast of charlatans. Luckily for UX, the dot com crash had a cleansing effect. In many ways, the crash was the best thing that could have happened to strengthen the UX field, but in retrospect this seems to have also highlighted a key challenge that Adrian hinted at in his post: UX, though much younger, is starting to see the same dysfunction that has limited account planning. It might be that UX is growing up too fast. In my mind, there's no substitute for time when it comes to discovering what your discipline ought to be. Even better, some things are left unfinished.
I'm not hating on UX. I love the field, the various sub-disciplines and facets, and the richness of the discourse throughout the community. I love the fact that we don't really have a clear understanding of what the boundaries of UX are as a practice. This malleability is an opportunity that more people need to realize and take advantage of. We just need to learn from, and more importantly partner with those like us - we can't progress in a vacuum. I worry that without a broader range of perspectives UX will burn strong and bright...and live a short life. This might be a possible outcome for the current form of UX and its sub disciplines, but I'm a fan of evolutionary prototypes and I'd hate to see UX not grow into something better and more valuable as it matures.
Convergence and Discourse
Adrian suggests that UX is the new account planning. I'll make a bolder prediction and suggest that UX and Planning are on convergent paths, though most practitioners in each respective field won't immediately see this. At this point, I think two things are critical. The first is that UX needs to carefully study the lessons learned by the planning field to date, and apply this insight in the context of the evolution of UX. The second is that both fields need to recognize that they're on convergent paths. The question is whether or not this convergence will result in something better for both, or whether they will pass quietly without influencing the other.
Five years ago, UX practitioners existed all over the design process. Each organization had its own way of fitting this capability in. Today, there's more of a sense, in theory if not always in practice that UX spreads across the "process". The hopeful "Big UX" talk of a couple of years ago is increasingly being realized in pockets. When I was at Critical Mass, I watched UX gain a seat at the table with many F500 clients. Planning Directors had UX chops and we lived and breathed "Experience Planning", happily making it up as we went along. In talking with other digital agencies over the last year, their goals have often been similar: find a way to knit UX and planning together to realize some increased capability. The titles may vary from company to company, but the focus is the same. Design Strategists look a hell of a lot like planners with design thinking skills, and the fact that a recent planning survey highlighted the fact that a lot of planners would like to work at IDEO suggests that there's a bottom up element to this movement as well.
The problem is that without a broader community discourse, it increasingly looks like a big ugly mess. In many cases, the practitioners don't match the capability that their titles suggest. UX people are weak at strategy. Planners don't know how to get their hands dirty. Everything seems half-baked.
So is UX really the new account planning? In some ways it is, but the web industry lives at an accelerated pace, and the growing pains for UX are just starting.
A better question in my mind is to ask what the future of digital industry is, and how the capabilities of the planning and UX disciplines can provide ongoing and increasing value for their shared focus; the customer/user. I won't even suggest I have the answers, but I do think that Planning and UX will both benefit from recognizing the opportunities that could come with an increasingly common future.