Hello my friends

Twenty-two years ago Hugh and I started InContext. Over the years we have grown the business from a 2-person consultancy to a larger design firm delivering Contextual Design services to clients in every industry.

We wrote our first book on Contextual Design in 1997. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my colleagues at universities and within companies, this book continues to sell 18 years later. It’s like Classic Coke! I’m proud that our work has helped push so many to consider the voice of the customer in a systematic way as our industry has evolved.

Contextual Design has also evolved. As technology has become truly integrated into the moments of everyday life we have actually changed how we live our lives. Today our products support more than tasks; they touch our core human motives: accomplishment, connection, identity, and sensation – as we discovered in the Cool Project. To help our clients design for these core motives, we developed new approaches to data collection, interpretation, modeling, and ideation. We introduced these new techniques in our book Contextual Design Evolved. Now Hugh and I are now working on an update of the original book to describe CD as we are using it today — expect to see it in 2016. Our current work with clients has shown the huge impact these new techniques can make on product design.

As always, we are challenged by our fit within the product development process. The push to design fast, to identify the next few features, to tweak what we already have is as strong as always. Techniques such as Agile purport to care about meeting the needs of the customer. But the customer is so often the product manager and the focus on 2-4 week sprints often squeezes out time for real user research – or any possibility of a broader requirements question. This is why we wrote our book on UX and Agile. But this challenge remains today as so many UX professionals struggle to have impact – to ask the larger questions of how best to support the activities of life in a time constrained feature focused industry.

So what are today’s design challenges? Twenty-two years later we are proud of our work, we are proud of our influence, and we are grateful to all the others in our industry who have also pushed the focus on customer/user centered design. Together we have indeed made an impact that turned an engineering-centered industry to a more user-centered industry. Is it perfect, does everyone do it? No. Is user experience design expected, do we have professionals incorporated into every team to bring that focus? Yes! Is there more work to do? Of course. It seems that in every generation we must help people remember that we invent products to enhance life. This is more so today than ever before. Appropriately our tag line for the new book is Design for Life. Today’s products have an even greater impact on the nature of life – and with that comes greater design responsibility.

To address that challenge we have developed talks, workshops, and coaching to help our clients learn these new processes in Contextual Design Evolved. What we also know is that when a consultant comes into a company they see the company from the outside. But a UX professional must work from within the company culture – this is a very different point of view. As we take the long view on our industry we realize that stories about how you use contextual techniques within your world, how you are challenged, how you get customer data that matters into the thinking of your designers is part of making sure teams indeed design for life.

So I invite you to share your stories with me – or just send mail so I can talk to you and write about it. We would like to highlight best practices and challenges and we can only do that with your help.

But we will seed this conversation with our own experience. After 22 years, Hugh and I have again decided to change the business. I want to spend my time both spreading skill on design innovation and to listen to the voices and experiences of the next generation of designers. I am deeply concerned with the rate at which women are leaving our field and I plan to spend more time on my women’s project that I started at Stanford University. Watch out for my activities in this space.

Hugh was always a product maker at heart has joined a start-up and is on an adventure to make contextual techniques work in this agile, fast paced context. Our process conversations are better than ever and our learnings will be in the new book! Other senior members of InContext have similarly joined companies and are learning about change from the inside. These are the stories that will seed our conversation about user-centered design.

Today I lead InContext with the help of a set of independent consultants who have worked with me for years. This refocus lets me support you in our your quest to design innovative products and to work more closely with universities, on women’s issues, and to champion the next generation of product designers. I look forward to our conversations in the future.

Karen Holtzblatt