10 years of UX consulting

Experience Dynamics celebrates its tenth birthday this year.  In the Spring of 2001, Frank Spillers founded Experience Dynamics with Alison Gavine. In this post, come with me on a stroll through our high points, the industry, and the road ahead.

We’ve been determined from the beginning to deliberately stay focused on the cognitive and emotional aspects of user experience (the stuff that really matters in design). This is over the draw of offering development or creative services. Purist, you could say, but for good reason. As a founder, I learned early on in my consulting work with early pioneers in the field of Human-Centered Design that if you are going to do user advocacy really well, you need to obsess about the user. And it’s paid off. After a few years, we started seeing customer conversion rate lifts on our clients’ websites, between 45%-200%. Ironically, we now offer select visual design and web development services for select projects.

Sharing the best of UX consulting with you

Over the years, we have worked with hundreds of organizations and impacted the work of thousands of individuals in companies, large and small. Seeing the need early on to help more people disseminate usability best practices throughout their organizations, in 2004, we began providing free usability seminars online. The UX training was wildly popular, and we had large teams from Fortune 100 companies attending the seminars regularly. At one point, Citigroup managers sent between a dozen and twenty-five team members to our virtual seminars regularly for three years in a row!

We were the first in the UX community to offer high-quality and free online seminars. Going forward, we will continue the tradition by sharing more quality free seminars and making some in-person appearances too.

Interfaces are getting better, thankfully!

We noticed in 2001-2003 that users started articulating more precisely what they wanted to see from websites. In many cases it was exactly what we would recommend: “Put the main navigation in the top or left the area and minimize the amount of stuff over here on the right”.

Our clients come to us with large-scale websites, complex web applications, and products with one demand: make our interfaces easier. Likewise, we saw that as more major websites and portals became easier to use, more users wanted the same standard of ease of use as those other sites.

A decade on, developers are now thinking about usability best practices and it is difficult to find a graphic designer who does not think about usability when approaching design. UI style guides are now one of the most popular requests on our website.

Apple motivated the industry to push for drop-dead easy simplicity, minimalism, and dyed-in-the-wool usability techniques like multi-modal interaction– never used so elegantly in a product before (iPhone). In the Web area specifically, Google and start-ups like Kayak.com took simplicity, minimalism, and Rich Internet Application ease of use to a new level reinventing services like MapQuest and Hotmail with what Adaptive Path’s Jesse James Garrett termed AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). In 2007, after extensive testing of AJAX-inspired designs we released our AJAX Usability Checklist.

The UX field is getting smarter.

We’ve seen major changes in our field, new tools emerging, and a better understanding of usability techniques and how to apply them to the changing world.  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted how Mobile App user experience, Emotion Design, and Service Design would impact our UX consulting.

Usability Testing

It is exciting to see usability testing go fully mainstream with cheaper and easier ways to get quick, gut-level feedback on a design. The work there is not finished: the dozen or more solutions are exclusively online and do not let you observe live or log usability metrics– one of the major downsides to online usability testing tools.

We’ve witnessed the demand for usability testing increasing, so in 2005, we created a desktop usability testing app called LiveLogger, one of a small handful of usability testing software solutions at the time. As Morae took the market by storm, we released an update to LiveLogger called Experience Capture Studio for lab-based usability testing, a co-creation with New Zealand-based Intranel.


Personas finally gained traction in the industry and were adopted by many more organizations. Experience Dynamics helped evangelize personas with multiple contributions to Pruitt and Adlin’s classic “bible” on personas, The Essential Persona Lifecycle. By actually doing user research and grounding design decisions in real-world data (of which personas are one deliverable) we found teams could move away from ordinary user experiences and steer closer toward exceptional user experiences.

User Experience

Early in the decade, understanding user needs meant “using internal assumptions of what users want” instead of grounding insights in real-world user behavior. However we noticed the first signs of change as early as 2003. Advertising agencies like Ogilvy started offering Ethnographic research workshops at Ad conferences. Even IBM re-named its Human Centered Design practice to “Outside In Design” to drive the point home. Not every organization has moved with the change, and many still have a way to go. But in the short space of a decade, what we have seen has been nothing short of a miracle.

To continue evangelizing usability, in 2006, we created a poster called The Importance of User Experience. The poster was translated into over 25 languages and go up in over 2,500 organizations worldwide.

We heard: “The poster is a tool I use in my presentations to educate management…I point to the poster above my desk and say “look at this””. I had no idea a poster could have such an impact.

Since then, we have created a Web Apps usability poster. We are also working on a mobile and social version in the coming year. These are two areas where evangelizing user experience has become hot.

The road ahead for UX consulting

Many organizations have yet to formalize usability and UX best practices. The next generation of developers, marketers, and managers seems to go through the same learning curve as before. We’re working on new solutions to address this need.

See our UX Transformation organizational change service

Two areas where UX expertise is needed are mobile and social experiences. It feels like we are in the early days of the truly elegant social and mobile user experience. Recently, we opened up the conversation toward Designing the Privacy User Experience. This is a hot topic in social networking and social user experience.

We’re starting to see 3D interfaces come together (in movies and smartphones). This development is of personal interest, as I cut my teeth in the usability of collaborative virtual environments and virtual reality in the mid-1990s. The design challenges will require fresh ways to approach difficult design problems. As with any new technology, solutions require grounding in known and proven usability best practices of past and present.

Finally, touchscreen iPads and iPad clones have set the tone for tablet user experience. Is that it? I doubt it; real tablets (the ones you can write on) have yet to emerge. On a related note, iPad user interface design techniques (with Apple’s new brand experience of simplicity) are finding their way back into desktop applications and website design. We’ll launch a new Experience Dynamics website soon, showcasing what we believe to be the “new” hybridizing of mobile and web ease of use.

Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS

(Founder and Co-CEO of Experience Dynamics Inc.)

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