I was standing on the podium at the end of my Lifetime Achievement Award talk on practical innovation answering questions. Someone asked: “I see that there are a lot of women awarded this year; what can men learn about how to better support women in the field?” This led to some fun interaction about men and women working together—which you can see, along with the talk, once it is released to the CHI library. Apparently the overall talk also engendered much Twittering and fun.

But upon reflection, I see a different meaning in the awards given this year.

We at InContext have been working for a long time—over 20 years, apparently a lifetime, YOW!!—helping people in real companies bring rich data into their design and decision-making processes. In the beginning there was engineering-driven design: 10 smart guys in a room deciding what would be “cool” technology to ship. Cool technology at that time had a lot more to do with data and integration under the hood than how it affected people’s lives in day-to-day life. Products were often tools for other engineers or tools that other engineers could customize for businesses. And there were for sure few women who were in those rooms designing or coding.

But as the platforms evolved and evolved more, and as we moved from natural language command line interfaces to WYSIWYG to VisiCalc to the Web to the iPhone, “regular” people started to be the real customer. This was the tip of a revolution that Hugh and I faced so long ago—and this is the revolution all of us have faced more and more over the years. Regular people who don’t care about understanding technology—who only care about what they are trying to do and how to get it done quickly with little “fussing with technology”—are our customers and business users today.

As a result, understanding people, their lives and their needs became critical for product management and engineers. This was the challenge in companies and in our community when Contextual Design was born. At this time there were also few “user-anything” job titles: Interface/Researcher/Designer/Experience/information architects…

Design for real people means understanding how technology can fit into their lives in valued ways. The contribution of Contextual Design and other field data techniques is getting the data that characterizes what is going on with people’s lives into the minds of the people designing and building products and systems. This is not just understanding how people respond to or interact with a particular tool or offering. Rapid prototyping and usability testing have always had this secondary focus. Field data provides the fodder for, as Ben Shneiderman said of our process long ago, “The only generative method in the field”.  Figuring out what to make in the first place—figuring out how to improve lives with technology given what people are doing and experiencing—this is what those of us who start the design process out in the field are committed to.

This balance between understanding the lives of people vs. testing tools and measuring the result reminds me of the nature/nurture question in developmental psychology; what has greater influence your genetics or the environment you are raised in. Both are important for understanding how we develop into who we become. Similarly our industry needs a way to understand what is going on in peoples’ lives so we can invent new solutions with the emerging new technologies that work for people. Field data is the compass showing direction and showing the context that any technology must fit into. Field data gives designers, product managers, and engineers the picture of the world they are designing for. But iterative testing of any product or solution improves what is already there and works out the user experience bugs. Any good requirements and design process needs both.

As Irene Au from Google said during a panel this year: “Web statistics and surveys can optimize the user experience but cannot create fundamentally new designs”

Or listen to Arnie Lund from Microsoft (another new member of the CHI Academy who is focused on practice): “What you measure is what you get—you never find out “why” from the data you collect off the web—you end up with way more data than you can deal with and no way to make sense of it. Optimizing one metric can degrade others. You don’t know how to balance them. But web metrics work to validate hypotheses or test two designs against each other.”

So what did we celebrate this year at CHI? We celebrated the recognition that field data gathering is at the center of the work we in this field do to make products and systems work for people. Take a look at who was recognized:

  • The keynote was by Genevieve Bell from Intel, an anthropologist who was hired by Intel to understand the lives of women and people outside the United States.
  • Lucy Suchman, who was the first person I knew using field data to inform product design, another anthropologist, received the Lifetime award for research.
  • I received the Lifetime award for practice—creating Contextual Design as a practical process for teams to gather and use field data for the purpose of design.
  • Allison Druin and Ben Bederson received the Social Impact award. They are known for working with children directly in the field and as collaborators in design.

The really impressive thing in this year’s CHI is not so much about acknowledging women, although I’m gratified to see it. The really impressive thing is that our community has recognized the value of field data for the purpose of design. Understanding the details of people’s lives has become mainstream, central to the design process. This is real industry change and we are celebrating it.

I for one was honored and humbled at the congratulations. But more, I was impressed by the number of students and university professors who came up to tell me how much they use our book and processes to teach design. We are indeed into the next generation—new designers, user researchers, product managers are learning the value of understanding people in the context of their lives to drive their design decisions—and that can only mean better products and technologies.

In my lifetime achievement talk I addressed innovation—the reality of what practical innovation requires of a company. Through an analysis of Avatar and the iPhone I mapped the challenge of producing a game-changing product or experience. And I addressed the role of field data in this process of practical innovation.

So go see it—tell me what you think. And think about the next layer of change needed in our industry. This talk was a prototype in how to talk to the top of our organizations. This is the audience I hope to engage in my next lifetime.