Local Communities In Practice and By Design

New ways to meet each other.

by Vitorio Miliano
, @vitor_io

¶ 1 It’s early October 2011, and IxDA Austin is hosting a happy hour. I’m having drinks with forty-some-odd folks from the Austin design community: UX practitioners, graphic designers, usability professionals, and creative directors. The tables at this hip East Austin bar’s back patio are full of patrons bearing name tags – and many more, similarly branded, are standing, mingling, talking, and networking, with the occasional trip inside for a refill. The happy hour started at 6, and will include an unscheduled third hour before people start to leave en masse.

¶ 2 I’ve met two newcomers tonight. Jenica Welch is from San Francisco, which she characterizes as having a large enough design community that you can’t walk down the street without running into a designer on their way to another event. She’s been in Austin for a year, but only discovered the IxDA group recently. This is her first time meeting local designers that she doesn’t work with. Georgette Sullivan moved here from Kansas City, which she describes as having a small enough design community that all the Adobe software users have to participate in a single user group, instead of one for each product.

¶ 3 Georgette was looking forward to Austin’s larger community. Jenica was surprised by how small and hidden it was. Does Austin exist between these two perspectives? How can the local community have failed to support a new designer for a year? What other issues does our design community face? Does your city have similar problems? How can the situation be improved?

Exploring How Austin’s Communities Began

¶ 4 Austin has three primary design communities: the active75 local chapters of AIGA,76 IxDA,77 and UPA.78 For interaction design, usability and user experience, there is also an STC79 chapter and a growing content strategy meetup,80 but no other professional chapters.81 For graphic design, there are Adobe user group chapters82 and a “design and media” meetup,83 but no presence beyond these.84 Web developers have multiple groups, but web-specific designers only have a local Refresh85 chapter. In this essay, I will analyze the composition and behaviors of the attendees of our local IxDA and UPA chapters.

¶ 5 The aforementioned happy hour paints a rosy picture of a vibrant community that wasn’t always so. Agencies have only participated recently, and their support remains tepid. Pentagram has had an Austin office since 1994,86 Frog Design since 1996.87 But while Frog has hosted SXSW parties since 2004,88 they have only actively opened themselves to the local community since September 2011. Razorfish has had an office in Austin since 2005.89 Possible Worldwide90 and Adaptive Path have had offices in Austin since 2008, but Adaptive Path’s coming-out party wasn’t until October 2010.91

¶ 6 Independent professional organizations haven’t fared well, either. Austin UPA’s final meeting was in November 2004.92 Meanwhile, IxDA’s Austin chapter had never before held a meeting; its previous organizer had publicly stated he was only interested in hosting formal presentations organized by others.93 A lack of support from both industry and the existing community finally drove people to organize by themselves.

¶ 7 The watershed moment came in January 2008, when UI designer and researcher Kyra Edeker, after feeling a “hole” in the community over the past year, hosted a happy hour at a new wine bar on a Monday night and unexpectedly packed the house.94 One of the attendees was Tori Breitling, a freelance user experience designer who found the turnout galvanizing.95

¶ 8 Frustrated with the local IxDA organizer’s neglect of the chapter despite multiple entreaties from the community, Breitling launched a UX Book Club chapter96 in November 200897 while pursuing remedies through IxDA’s board. At the same time, usability researcher Julie Lowe, originally seeking a local mentor, had met with the previous UPA chapter’s organizer and elected to take it over, keeping it focused on testing and research.98 UX designer Amy Jones also saw the community’s unmet needs and, spurred on by her manager, announced monthly lunches and a mailing list under the name Austin UX, choosing independence over the political battles of existing organizations.

¶ 9 Austin UX’s first lunch and mailing list posts came only a few weeks before Breitling’s book club announcement. Lowe opened Austin UPA’s web site in September 2008, and its first meeting was held in January 2009. Austin’s UX Book Club held its first meeting at the end of January 2009, but IxDA Austin was turned over to Breitling at the end of February. After holding IxDA Austin’s first meeting at the end of March, Breitling didn’t have the time to manage both and, unable to find a co- or replacement organizer, she shuttered UX Book Club in July 2009.

¶ 10 As IxDA and UPA relaunched, members joined at a rate and number which seemed to reflect the openness of their parent group.99 UPA grew slowly from its initial 34 members in the first two months, spiking to 67 after its first meeting, and settling into an average of 10 new members a month until they changed over to a new mailing list in July 2010. IxDA grew at more than double UPA’s rate: 89 members in its first month, and maintaining an average of 24 new members a month over the same time period. Just over half of UPA’s initial membership signed up with IxDA after its launch, and after that, members present on both lists were twice as likely to have joined IxDA first.100

Timeline of Austin’s Local Community

¶ 11 Meetings in both groups were irregular and informal: a lot of happy hours and short talks, and the duplication of event types may have gone unnoticed because each group was targeting different segments of the community. I felt this was awkward; surely at least the social events could be coordinated?101 I also felt there was an unmet need for more formal mentoring, continuing education, and technical practice, none of which were directly supported by IxDA or UPA (and, at this point, I had not yet heard of Austin UX).

¶ 12 Feeling like these professional organizations were lacking in formality, in December 2009 I published an essay102 proposing a practice workshop for designers, which was patterned after Toastmasters International. In January 2010, the Design Workshop held its first meeting, and I would hold these meetings every two weeks through August 2010.

¶ 13 With the resurgence of community activity, Amy Jones shuttered Austin UX in August 2010. I learned of Austin UX as it was closing and, seeing this as further evidence of the community’s fractured nature, I relaunched it as an event calendar to document the meetings of design organizations (and non-design organizations holding design-related events) citywide.103 It provided the appearance of a cohesive community to visitors and outsiders, but the community, when defined as organizations holding events and attendees of those events, doesn’t behave this way in practice.

Qualifying Community Membership

¶ 14 Both IxDA Austin and Austin UPA define their “membership” as names on a mailing list. No dues are required to participate, and there is no other barrier to entry. Not all events require RSVPs, so attendees may make up a different segment of the population than those signed up on the organization’s lists and websites. Finally, the mechanics of these lists and websites may affect participation.

¶ 15 IxDA Austin is a Ning104 site containing web-based forums, a calendar, and a broadcast-only mailing list. A “member” is someone who has signed up to receive notices about events, RSVPed to an event, or posted a job ad in the forum.105 The group continues to see growth at an average of 22 members (median 19) a month, and now has 749 members on its roster. Job posts and event listings are frequent, but there isn’t much other conversation.

¶ 16 Austin UPA also started as a Ning site, but it migrated to a WordPress blog and Google Group mailing list in July 2010 after Ning dropped support for free sites.106 This afforded a unique opportunity for analysis – members who migrated might be more engaged in UPA specifically, as IxDA did not exist when UPA first launched. The Ning site contained 245 members at the point of the migration, of which 121 were also present on the then–444-member IxDA list.107 For the switch, the original membership was asked to rejoin the new list. 100 users joined within the first few days, 133 joined by the end of the year, and there are 183 total members today, including the same overlap percentage (90 members). Not counting the initial spike, the Google Group sees new members join at an average rate of 5 members per month; whether due to the decrease in join rate, increased specialization, or other factors, only one third of new members will end up joining IxDA as well (although members of both are twice as likely to have joined IxDA first).108 The blog supports comments, but they are rarely made, and logins are not shared between the site and the list.

¶ 17 Austin UX started out as a mailing list, blog, and monthly lunch. I don’t have participation information on the blog,109 but at the time the original site was disbanded, the list had 33 members. It now has 99, but the subscribers rarely post; they seem to use it only to receive the weekly list of design-related events. I supplement the mailing list with a Twitter account,110 which tries to follow as many local design-related people and organizations as possible, and its followers have increased at an average of four per week,111 despite not directly participating in conversations.112

¶ 18 In fact, there appears to be no online, public Austin design community, when either defined as design-related conversation centered around Austin-based individuals, or as conversations within the online presences for the Austin design communities. I viewed this as a bad thing; it seemed like a substantially unmet need to have no way to sample the pulse of local designers, or to find someone to talk with in person. Shouldn’t it be easiest to find like-minded professionals when they’re down the proverbial street?

¶ 19 Designers are finding their sense of community elsewhere. As you’ll see in the next section, it’s not primarily through in-person meetings. Even the 130-odd Austin designers I follow with the AustinUX Twitter account don’t seem to talk much amongst themselves;113 rather, I believe they primarily communicate through location-independent venues such as the parent IxDA list, or through sites like Forrst,114 Behance,115 or Dribbble.116 This idea is supported anecdotally in published interviews with local designers, including creative director Phil Coffman117 and artist Shyama Golden,118,119 both of whom talk about their “creative communities” as being online, rather than local and online, or local and in-person.

Experiences With a New Local Community

¶ 20 My understanding of unmet community needs revolved around criticism and feedback. I wanted to brainstorm, and solicit feedback on designs from more experienced professionals. I sought input from those who could suggest design patterns, best practices, and competitive insights. I wanted to occasionally check in with them to confirm I’m “doing it right”, ideally with critiques both during and after the design process. This would give me (and others) a way to both practice design fundamentals and learn how to apply new techniques. This was a persistent need in my own professional development, and in casual conversations with coworkers across different companies and during local meetups, I felt I wasn’t the only one.

¶ 21 My beliefs were partially reinforced during the design workshops I held in 2010: people always showed up, but I was surprised by their professional diversity. Attendees seemed to average only 50% professional designers: students, developers, and managers comprised the rest. People were interested in a variety of workshop activities – brainstorming, concepting, problem solving, sketching – but they wanted to end each session with a tangible, applied result instead of abstract knowledge. This, along with their irregular attendance,120 made it difficult to successfully assign “homework” or to support work over multiple workshops.121 The amount of time and effort necessary to run a workshop (8-16 hours of preparation, 20+ hours to document the results) was a possible reason no one ever volunteered to run one, and only three organizations specifically requested to hold a workshop in support of their ventures.

¶ 22 Design-related practice outside of one’s work day appears to require interesting, fun, atypical elements and immediately tangible results. Practicing formal critiques or delivering presentations was “too much like work,” as one attendee put it. I wondered if current practitioners felt their education and experience provided all the training they needed. Or, maybe they felt their workplaces should encourage any additional training, and if they’re not currently doing it, it doesn’t need to be done.

Discovering Community Needs

¶ 23 In February 2011, after being prompted by user experience evangelist Sara Summers, I designed a 27-question survey for Austin’s design community.122 It was sent to the IxDA Austin, Austin UPA, Austin UX, and Refresh Austin mailing lists, and it remained open for twelve days, garnering 103 responses.

¶ 24 A little over half of the respondents gave a design-related job title, and up to 86% of respondents worked primarily on the web. Despite the lack of uniform connection to the design industry, there were few statistically significant differences between designers and non-designers,123 suggesting many types of employees, managers, producers, directors, developers, researchers, and freelancers suffer from the same problems.

¶ 25 I asked a mixture of questions I felt would help define the community’s makeup, engagement, and experience. To provide a measurement against national figures, some questions were copied verbatim from A List Apart’s 2010 web design survey.124 As ALA found when they launched their survey in 2007, it would seem no one had surveyed local design communities to discover their makeup or their needs. The closest the overarching design community has are “salary and benefits” surveys conducted by UPA,125 STC,126 and the IA Institute,127 which don’t look for the same sort of data. Our 103 local responses compare favorably with IAI’s 282 for their 2010 national salary survey and their 105 national responses for a “local leaders” survey in 2009,128 as well as STC Austin’s range of “75-150” for their regional salary survey.

¶ 26 Some of the results were expected, such as a strong relationship between where people lived and where they worked, and that weekday evenings were preferred meeting times. Furthering the idea of a distinct event-attending subgroup, 47% reported they don’t attend events because they don’t have time, and 36% don’t keep track of events at all. Write-in comments mentioning family obligations, scheduling conflicts, and transportation issues all lend credence to convenience being a major factor around attendance, but the questionnaire wasn’t specific enough to explore this problem more deeply.

¶ 27 The results around the community engagement questions were surprising. Of all who responded, 74% regularly collaborate with other designers, suggesting even lone designers (35% of respondents) can find help, but the survey questions weren’t able to conclusively say how help was found.

¶ 28 In addition, more than half of respondents reported ten or more years in the field, which seems to be a lot of expertise. Was that a contributing factor to such a large proportion of the community not attending events? It turns out there is a statistically significant difference.129 Respondents who reported over ten years of experience were more likely to say they had no time to attend events,130 and were less likely to say they don’t keep track,131 compared to people with fewer than ten years of experience. It is assumed that senior people are more likely to have families and more complicated work schedules, so despite the apparent likelihood that they know what is going on in the community, they do not have enough time to attend. What explains junior- and mid-level practitioners having the time (at least, not reporting that they don’t have the time), but not keeping track of events? Is it an issue with the individuals, the organizations, or both?

¶ 29 Regardless of experience, senior respondents were no more or less likely to be interested in the fundamentals of design than anyone else. Most respondents sought basics of IA and UX, brainstorming, sketching, and prototyping; more than half wanted to learn user research, ethnographies, customer development, A/B testing, metrics, and feedback systems. Mentoring, critiques, criticism, and processes led the pack of missing features in the workplace, along with contacting end users, customer research, and market research. Can a mature, well-supported local community really still require education about the basics?

A Failure of Perspective

¶ 30 Given the available information, it appears that industry and national organizations have neglected us for years. A few motivated individuals rise above this to spearhead local groups, but they’re going it alone. Looking at participation, we don’t see any evidence of a public, online, local community, and anecdotes suggest people are finding a sense of community elsewhere.

¶ 31 I started a new community, and found that participants want to conduct professional activities without them feeling like work. I conducted a survey, and found that people are collaborating somehow, but the most senior people don’t have time to attend events, the most junior people don’t know what events are happening, and everyone still wants to learn the basics. How do all of these pieces fit?

¶ 32 They don’t.

¶ 33 I asked at the outset: does Austin exist between these two perspectives? I believe the answer to be no, because “Austin” as a cohesive design community does not exist at all. Rather, Austin contains a loose collection of dozens, perhaps even hundreds of micro-communities centered around workplaces, with social events being the driver to get people to interact outside of them.

¶ 34 What cohesive community could there be without ongoing support? Substantially motivated individuals have been necessary to keep the local organizations going, and they receive little to no support from local companies or parent organizations. Without sustainable talent development, or national or global chapters assisting local chapters with marketing and technology, every group has had ongoing problems with awareness, attendance, adoption, and infrastructure.

¶ 35 What kind of community could exist without awareness? At each of eight informal lunches I hosted through IxDA Austin, there were a handful of user experience designers, interaction designers, and user researchers who had never heard of the IxDA, the UPA, or Austin UX: in fact, they attended because someone personally invited them. The same experience persists at IxDA happy hours: they’ve been practicing interaction design for years, and have interaction designer friends, but have never heard of the IxDA existing either locally or globally. Austin UPA, IxDA Austin, UX Book Club Austin, and Austin UX have all lain fallow in the past, because an organizer wasn’t motivated enough.

¶ 36 What kind of community could exist without engagement? There appears to be little Austin-specific online chatter. Experienced designers know what’s going on, but they don’t have the time for it; and junior designers have the time, but they don’t keep up. Everyone yearns for a more supportive work environment, but they want to keep it at work, Mondays through Thursdays. Any free time must be expended on something fun and new; and even then, most people prefer passive enrichment: learning from web sites, rather than attending training in person. Unfortunately, the survey wasn’t detailed enough to discover how respondents were applying what they learned, if they were truly learning at all; after all, idle time spent on design blogs is very different from active practice.132 And even if you build a great local community, some people simply won’t give up their free time for any reason.

¶ 37 Do sociological theory or group theory explain these trends, and offer a way forward? If Austin truly is not a community of practice, can one be made? Should it? If designers aren’t getting what they need from their workplaces, can local social organizations support them?

Four New Premises

¶ 38 Looking for theoretical solutions, I turned to academic and popular literature: primarily small group research in social psychology,133 supplemented by related material in other fields like organizational culture, activity theory, and social software design.

¶ 39 Writer and researcher Clay Shirky provided an accurate and accessible adaptation of 50 years of sociological research by Bion and others,134 and social interaction designer Xianhang Zhang offered several compelling anecdotes.135 Etienne Wagner’s Communities of Practice136 was not as helpful as I had hoped, and the harmonious foundations laid out in Peter Block’s Community: the Structure of Belonging137 are unproven. I don’t cite research in activity theory or chaordic organizational theory, as I don’t think either field is directly relevant at this time.

¶ 40 Plausible hypothesis 1: Most cities don’t harbor local, public design communities. Rather, there are motivated actors seeking fulfillment in groups and companies which serve their own needs. Marvin E. Shaw says “people join groups in order to satisfy some individual need.”138 These needs can include affiliation (wanting to find someone to commiserate with), or to fulfill needs from outside the group (appearing to learn more to advance at work).

¶ 41 This could also be something of an American problem. In many European countries, the apprenticeship system still exists and is sometimes legally mandated, requiring companies to foster potential future employees and ensure a community is self-sustaining. Here, however, designers – and professionals in all sorts of fields – often go it alone.139 More than half the respondents in our survey had at least one other designer in their workplace, and while it’s possible to find community with as few as two other people,140 small, insular groups don’t grow the networks and leadership of larger ones. The demonstrated need for a motivated actor to launch and sustain an organization suggests that, should Tori Breitling falter or the current UPA board fail to sustain interest, Austin would lose its nascent public design scene.

¶ 42 What to do about it? First, given the fractured nature of the existing local and global community organizations, are better local communities even needed? Is there value in being a “designer in Austin” versus a “designer at X agency”, which just happens to be in Austin, or an “IxDA member” of which the nearest chapter is in Austin? The value of an “Austin design community” should not be assumed.

¶ 43 Second, it should be established what needs the existing communities are filling. Can these needs be filled in more routine ways? In the cases of senior practitioners not having time, and junior practitioners not knowing what’s going on, would fixed events improve awareness, if publicized well in advance? STC Austin, for example, establishes and publishes the entire year of its fortnightly lunches at the start of every year. Organizers would then be free to focus on more unique events, making it less traumatic to the community if an organizer steps down, because the social framework would still persist.141

¶ 44 Third, are there ways in which better software can address group paradoxes?142 As groups formalize their structures to the extent that their members require structure,143 is there an effective way to organically automate ad-hoc group forming without violating social customs? Shirky echoes Tuckman144 and other academics in saying that social software developers, not unlike social psychologists, tend to repeat their mistakes by not understanding earlier research, which results in similar theories existing without enough empirical evidence.145

¶ 45 Plausible hypothesis 2: Most designers don’t believe in design as a profession. Bion doesn’t use the term “participation inequality”,146 but he notes complaints that 80% of patients were “shirkers”, comparing this to equivalent problems facing organizations and groups worldwide.147 Is it truly unexpected to suppose only 20% of your community cares and acts more than the rest? How else to explain the dominant desires for fundamental training, for passive learning, for nearly a third who only do design 9-to-5?

¶ 46 A profession can provide solidarity, specialized training, ethics, and standards. More established professions, like sports, law, and medicine, require ongoing education, training, and reinforcement, and they work to sustainably advance members regardless of where they’re employed.148 Even when a profession requires only certain types of lifelong education, its practioners often find value in additional methods, such as coaching.149 Design has no such codifications, but the UPA and IxDA were founded in part to provide these elements.150 Still, the lack of professional standing means designers are not acculturated to believe these things are necessary, nor do they believe they have a personal responsibility to support their field’s advancement, resulting in the acceptance of inadequate working conditions and the unsustainable practices of not training up junior designers.151

¶ 47 What to do about it? Bion and Nielsen independently suggest that disparate engagement levels are a fundamental feature of groups. Furthermore, today’s designers don’t believe they need ongoing development, and so they don’t seek it out. This hurts the local design community because its would-be members see no value in it. Today’s designers do not demand work environments more conducive to traditional design practices, with training and critiques and codified processes, so they do not receive them. This hurts the local design community because it lowers the effectiveness and value of all designers throughout the city. If there is any value in a local design community, it may be in declaring principles for designers to follow, improving outreach for and education about those values to reduce participation inequality, and collectively pressuring local industries to meet those basic professional needs.

¶ 48 Plausible hypothesis 3: There is not enough high-end value for senior practitioners. Zhang talks about disinterested, high-value members leaving a community, thus setting it on a path to mediocrity. By proxy, could high-value members not join in the first place if the group is already perceived as being mediocre?

¶ 49 Online communities often attempt egalitarianism, and the IxDA was founded on principles of inclusion and openness. But humans are social, status-seeking animals, and successful, long-term, real-world organizations have “elitist promotion structures”. Zhang uses the example of putting high-value contributors on a pedestal as a way of encouraging their continued favor, and participation in his own Product Design Guild152 is by invitation only. Designers are not immune to special treatment, no matter their experience level.

¶ 50 What to do about it? We infer things in the survey data that may or may not be true. Namely, we assume those with ten years of experience are true senior practitioners. We assume their reasons for not attending are true. We conflate experience with contribution value. Moving forward, it is necessary for each community to determine what it seeks to gain from high-value contributors.

¶ 51 If high-value contribution – whether in the form of knowledge sharing, group leadership, mentoring, standard setting, or other functions – does not come with experience, perhaps the most interesting conversations can be (or are already being) held without the most experienced practitioners. The absence of a demographic does not necessarily mean the community has lost anything. If their presence is desired or needed, then methods for drawing them in can be applied, whether through tailored content or personal invitations.

¶ 52 Plausible hypothesis 4: Either there is a shadow design community of private groups, or the Austin community is too immature or fractured to support such a shadow community. Zhang references the “shadow community” of private events and groups in San Francisco as being where “all the real work in the Valley is done”, and comments if you are any good and can network, you’ll find yourself with an invitation into a small part of it.

¶ 53 Caleb Clark’s mailing list153 illustrates the beneficial nature of private communities. As his list grew too large, he shut it down, but he gave key members a new list address, and they invited their trusted friends, returning cohesion and community. That I find issues and unmet needs in the public design scene may mean it is the mediocre result of all the high-value contributors being elsewhere. It could also mean for a shadow community to exist, there must be a certain amount of public cohesion which San Francisco exhibits, but Austin does not.

¶ 54 What to do about it? I am told New York City’s design scene started out privately – drinking wine in someone’s condo – and later grew into something public, so apparently it can work multiple ways. If the situation is the former, I am not sure anything should be done about it: barriers to entry are necessary for groups to protect themselves. If the situation is the latter, can the tail wag the dog? Would forming an exclusive, private design meeting in Austin push the public, accessible groups to be more competitive?

Local Communities By Design

¶ 55 The issues faced by the Austin design community might be shared in other cities, as well as by other types of communities. I imagine New York and San Francisco to have such a density of designers as to be culturally different from any other cities in the country – perhaps the world. If you don’t live in New York or San Francisco, then these issues – awareness, attendance, adoption, infrastructure – are likely yours, too. You don’t know how many designers exist, what they do in their jobs, how supportive their workplaces are, what their needs are, what their interests are, and if they talk with other designers. You may only ever see the motivated 20%, 10%, or 1%.

¶ 56 We are an industry that claims to promote measured, analytical design, but we’re ignorant of the history of social group design154 and we’re ignorant of the makeup of our own local communities. How can we design a community of practice if we don’t study ourselves as users?

¶ 57 Last year’s survey was a good start, but better data could be collected, and as groups make changes to address these issues, ongoing testing and validation is necessary. We’ve developed a revised survey for 2012, which tries to discover how engaged and experienced your group members are. We’ve also designed feedback forms for continuous analysis of your progress with each event you hold. In conjunction with this essay, we’re making everything available for you to use with your local community group.155

¶ 58 The survey is available online through Qualtrics, a survey tool used especially for qualitative research, and their free trial accounts support up to 250 responses, which should be enough if your response rate is at all comparable to ours from 2011. We provide full documentation on how to release the survey in the Supplementary Material section. After we analyze the 2012 Austin results, we’ll update it with instructions on how you can do the same.

¶ 59 The event response cards are for handing out and collecting at every meeting you hold. They’ve been designed to match the survey, and along with taking a headcount, they try to tell you how well your event was received, how well it met people’s expectations, if the attendees were new or existing members, and their level of engagement. A Google Docs Spreadsheet is provided with a form to make entering responses as easy as possible, with formulas included to display an analysis of the results, automatically. Full instructions are available in the Supplementary Material section.

¶ 60 For the first time, local leaders have data to compare group growth, sentiment and ongoing practices against. If you’re a local leader, give the survey to your community and use the feedback forms in your meetings. If you’re not, share this information with your group’s organizers and help them adopt the survey and feedback forms. Fight to spread the word and collect responses. Demand answers from attendees at every event: whether a happy hour or a private lecture. Look at the data and compare it to both the national figures and those from other cities of similar size. We’ve provided all of our data and recommendations for Austin in the Supplementary Material section, and we’ll be providing additional analysis after publication, including how we’ve changed. Learn what your community is doing and what it wants. Tell others what you want to see from it. Use this information to help build the community you wish you had.

¶ 61 If you believe in design as a profession, as a community of practice existing in your city, this is the next step. The national organizations can’t help you156 and your industry doesn’t support you. Building a thriving local community is up to you.

Supplementary Material

75. I define “active” as having a maintained web site, a responsive organizer, and at least four events a year.

76. AIGA, the professional association for design. Austin: http://www.aigaustin.org/. Parent: http://www.aiga.org/.

77. Interaction Design Association. Austin: http://ixdaaustin.ning.com/. Parent: http://www.ixda.org/.

78. Usability Professionals’ Association. Austin: http://www.austinupa.org/. Parent: http://www.upassoc.org/.

79. Society for Technical Communication. Austin: http://www.stcaustin.org/. Parent: http://www.stc.org/.

81. Such professional chapters include, but are not limited to, UX Book Club, Product Design Guild, ACM SIGCHI, American Society for Information Science and Technology, or the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

83. Austin Texas Design and Media: http://www.meetup.com/atxdm-org/.

84. Other professional organizations without Austin chapters include the Graphic Artists Guild, Society for News Design, Society of Publication Designers, Society for Environmental Graphic Design, and the Chartered Society of Designers.

85. Refresh Austin: http://www.refreshaustin.org.

86. Jenny Sullivan, Graphic Design America 3: Portfolios from the Best and Brightest Design Firms from Across the United States, Rockport Publishers, 2005, p. 194. Accessed 21 Oct 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=mhDtqoZ9M0kC&lpg=RA1-PA94&ots=wwwsSkQfXP&dq=pentagram%20austin%201994&pg=RA1-PA94#v=onepage&q&f=false.

87. “frogdesign acquires ZFI, adds to Austin office”, frogdesign, archived 11 Jun 1998. http://web.archive.org/web/19980611223030/http://www.frogdesign.com/press_zfi.html.

88. Media firm GSD&M hosted the opening party prior to Frog, according to archived pages. “SXSW Interactive Evening Events”, SXSW, archived 29 Mar 2004. http://web.archive.org/web/20040329230914/http://www.sxsw.com/interactive/evening_events/.

89. There were no references to an Austin location prior to the Avenue A merger. “office locations”, Avenue A | Razorfish, archived 4 Feb 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20050204021133/http://www.avenuea-razorfish.com/officeLocations.htm.

90. Sandra Zaragoza, “Schematic Yesterday, Possible Today”, Austin Business Journal, 21 Feb 2011. http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/blog/creative/2011/02/schematic-yesterday-possible-today.html.

91. “We’re Throwing a House Party, Texas Style”, Adaptive Path, accessed 21 Oct 2011. http://adaptivepath.com/ideas/d101310#news.

92. “Austin UPA calendar”, Austin UPA, archived 5 Jul 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080705022940/http://www.texasupa.org/austin/austinupa_calendar.htm.

93. “Texas IxDers”, IxDA mailing list, last modified 9 Oct 2007. http://www.ixda.org/node/15175#comment-46750.

94. Kyra Edeker, email with the author, 17 Oct 2011: “I emailed ~65 people I knew personally/professionally and also the national IxDA list, the local UPA folks and asked friends at agencies around town to spread the word. I stopped counting people at 65 that night (more than half I didn’t know - a coincidence that it was near my list total) and I think everyone was surprised at how many of us there were.”

95. Tori Breitling, email correspondence with the author, 26 Sep 2011: “…Kyra organized that mixer at that wine bar, at which gobs of people showed up, which showed me that I wasn’t the only one interested in getting the community together.”

96. Tori Breitling, email correspondence with the author, 26 Sep 2011: “I thought, well, here was something I could do for myself and Austin, so I jumped on the bandwagon. There was a very strong response from the community, probably around 50 people signed up in a matter of days.”

97. One of the first, #13, within four days of Dave Baty founding the project. “Welcome to UX Book Club!” UX book Club Wiki, archived revision from 30 Nov 2008, http://uxbookclub.org/doku.php?id=start&rev=1228056499.

98. Julie Lowe, email correspondence with the author, 10 Oct 2011: “[Tori Breitling] saw UPA being focused on testing and research and IxDA being about the interaction design. Being aware of the two groups for a while now, I would agree with that.”

99. You must be a dues-paying member of the national UPA organization to hold office in a local UPA chapter, whereas IxDA is free and entirely volunteer-run. This almost certainly impacts the potential participation levels of each.

100. Austin UPA Ning membership roster export dated 13 Jul 2010, provided by Julie Lowe, covering 4 Sep 2008 through 12 Jul 2010. IxDA Austin Ning membership roster export, collected by the author with access given by Tori Breitling, dated 26 Dec 2010, covering 27 Feb 2009 through 23 Dec 2010.

101. Whether this was a common feeling remains undetermined: “I never felt the ‘fractured nature’ of the communities was necessarily a problem, but rather a micro-reflection of the parent group[s].” Tori Breitling, email correspondence with the author, 30 Dec 2011.

102. Vitorio Miliano, “Practice user experience and interaction design with your peers,” last modified 12 Jan 2010. http://vi.to/workshop/premise.html.

104. “Ning, the World’s Largest Platform for Creating Social Websites™”. http://www.ning.com/.

105. For the first two years, you had to be a registered member to even view events; now, membership is only required to post and RSVP. Only administrators can post to the mailing list.

106. “Austin UPA Website Launch”, Austin UPA mailing list, 24 Jul 2010. http://groups.google.com/group/austin-upa/msg/01ca78014c896a1e?pli=1.

107. Austin UPA Ning membership roster export dated 13 Jul 2010 and IxDA Austin Ning membership roster export dated 26 Dec 2010.

108. Austin UPA Google Groups membership roster export dated 24 Oct 2011, provided by Craig Tomlin. IxDA Austin Ning membership roster export dated 22 Oct 2011.

109. Unfortunately, the site was hacked shortly before it closed, and I was unable to find a preserved copy. The mailing list archives were kept members-only.

110. “Austin UX”, Twitter. http://twitter.com/#!/AustinUX.

111. From the dates of Twitter follow notification emails from 30 Sep 2010 through 22 Dec 2011, with notable spikes around SXSW and the week of the happy hour from the introduction. Details available in the Supplementary Material section.

112. I do not run the LinkedIn group of the same name, but almost all of its activity is job postings.

113. At any given time, Twitter only exports the last 800 tweets from your timeline. Of 736 tweets written by 136 follows over 4 days, 5:52:12 in the middle of December 2011, exclusive of @AustinUX’s own tweets and tweets to @AustinUX, 60 tweets were between 19 followers: 8% of Austin designer tweets were between the 13% of accounts which knew of each other. If you remove tweets between two known couples, that number drops to 47 between 17 accounts, or 6% between 12%. Details available in the Supplementary Material section.

114. “Forrst is a community for developers and designers”. http://forrst.com/.

115. “Behance is the Creative Professional Platform”. http://www.behance.net/.

116. “Dribbble is show-and-tell for designers”. http://dribbble.com/.

117. “‘Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?’ …I finally made a blog and signed up for Twitter and my eyes were opened… We’ve been doing Dribbble meet-ups…” “Phil Coffman,” The Great Discontent, last modified 29 Nov 2011. http://thegreatdiscontent.com/phil-coffman.

118. “After joining Twitter, Facebook, and Dribbble, a website that allows designers to share their portfolios, Golden noticed people were beginning to take an interest in her work.” Jessica Lee, “Shyama Golden uses social media, local venues to show paintings,” Daily Texan, 13 Sep 2011. http://www.dailytexanonline.com/life-and-arts/2011/09/14/shyama-golden-uses-social-media-local-venues-show-paintings.

119. On reading a draft of this essay, Golden remarked over text message, “Also very much what I experienced in Austin, always thought it was just me.” She has since moved to San Francisco.

120. Most people would not attend every single week: every other meeting was more common, or at best two or three contiguous meetings.

121. The lone attempt failed due to no overlap in attendees across workshops.

122. A copy of the survey as presented to users, as well as its analysis, is available in the Supplementary Material section.

123. Design-related titles (some written in): Creative, Designer, HCD Lead, Hybrid, Information Architect, Interaction Designer, Interface Designer/UI Designer, UI Developer/UX Designer, Usability Expert/Consultant/Lead, UX Architect, UX Designer/Consultant/Lead, User Researcher, Web Designer, Writer, Editor, Art Director, Creative Director.

Non-design-related titles: Business Analyst, Marketer, Media Coordinator, Product Manager, Web Administrator, Web Director, Web Producer, Web Service Director, Founder, Developer, Senior UI Developer, Software Engineer, and Project Manager.

124. The survey has now closed, but you can see an analysis of its results at ALA Staff, “Findings from the Web Design Survey 2010”, A List Apart. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/findings-from-the-web-design-survey-2010/.

125. “Salary Surveys”, Usability Professionals Association. http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/usability_resources/surveys/SalarySurveys.html.

129. Dr. Llewyn Paine, a cognitive psychologist and Austin UPA chapter treasurer, computed the statistical significance for the survey results.

130. X2(1, N = 82) = 12.25, p < .001

131. X2(1, N = 82) = 16.86, p < .001

132. Nathaniel Davis, “Call Yourself a Practitioner? Prove it”, last modified 9 Jan 2012. http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2012/01/call-yourself-a-practitioner-prove-it.php.

133. Also called “group dynamics” by many researchers.

134. Clay Shirky, “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”, last modified 1 Jul 2003. http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html. I cite similar sources elsewhere in this essay.

135. Xianhang Zhang, “Social Software Sundays #2 - The Evaporative Cooling Effect,” last modified 10 Oct 2010. http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/social-software-sundays-2-the-evaporative-cooling-effect/.

136. Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

137. Peter Block, Community: the Structure of Belonging, Berrett-Koehler, 2008.

138. Marvin E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small Group Behavior, McGraw-Hill, 1976, p. 106.

139. Leah Buley, “Being a UX Team of One”, last modified 18 Mar 2009. http://www.ugleah.com/ux-team-of-one/.

140. W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups, Basic Books, 1961, p. 26.

141. This is because small groups often split their leadership responsibilities across task-based leaders and socio-emotional leaders. See also A. Paul Hare, Handbook of Small Group Research, Free Press, 1976, p. 303.

142. For an example of group paradoxes, Shirky describes a party that you’re disinterested in – but stay at – until everyone seems to simultaneously want to leave. This is one of many natural group behaviors that software never replicates; in this example, unless you’re 4chan, there’s always group persistence in group software.

143. Marvin E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small Group Behavior, McGraw-Hill, 1976, p. 285.

144. Bruce W. Tuckman, “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited”, Group and Organizational Studies 2(4):426, Dec 1977.

145. The design of better group support software is left as an exercise for the reader.

146. The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, is an illustration of a power law, where an outsized portion of events – in this case, active participation – are the result of a comparable minority of attributes (here, the number of total possible participants). Participation inequality in online communities is often expressed as the 90-9-1 rule: 90% never contribute, 9% occasionally contribute, and 1% account for an outsize majority of contributions. It’s conceivable that real-world communities would follow a similar breakdown if it were possible to track them as accurately. See also Jakob Nielsen, “Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute”. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html.

147. W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups, Basic Books, 1961, pp. 18-19.

148. For example, athletes work with coaches and trainers throughout their careers; a medical residency is effectively an apprenticeship which hospitals are required to support; meanwhile, lawyers can pass their state bar exam, and be licensed regardless of their practicing status.

149. Atul Gawande, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?” The New Yorker, 3 Oct 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all.

150. Bruce Tognazzini, “It’s Time We Got Respect”, last updated 28 Oct 2003. http://www.asktog.com/columns/057ItsTimeWeGotRespect.html.

151. “I think the number one reason there is a dirth [sic] of mid-level designers is because we (the big we meaning companies, hiring managers, managers) failed to make them. Did we expect them to grow on trees? No. We choose not to create them. We choose not to hire junior people and train them into mid-level designers. We choose to hire only senior designers for various reasons. So the solution is right there - if we want them - we have to commit to designing environments and organizational structures that will support the creation of mid-level designers.” Will Evans, comment on Jeff Gothelf, “Why Are There So Few Mid-Level UX Designers?” The Hired Guns, September 29, 2011, http://www.thehiredguns.com/blogs/2011/09/29/why-are-there-so-few-mid-level-ux-designers/.

153. Derek M. Powazek, Design for Community, New Riders, 2002, p. 178.

154. Formed months after Shirky’s talk, IxDA violates all of his recommendations for good social group design. It supports none of “handles the user can invest in”, “some way in which good works get recognized”, “barriers to participation”, nor “a way to spare the group from scale” from “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”.

155. Dr. Llewyn Paine consulted on the 2012 survey and event response card.

156. While IxDA compares to AIGA in size with over 20,000 “members,” their 2010 report was a tweet: http://twitter.com/#!/mojoguzzi/status/128323580323823617. In contrast, every AIGA chapter produces an annual report on its membership. STC is the next largest, with a third of the members, and appears to be second to AIGA in formality, surveying for possible improvements at the international level. UPA provides a handbook for chapter leaders, but they have a tenth of the membership. The IA Institute has only a twentieth of the membership. No organizations appear to provide ongoing support for managing local chapters nor discovering local community needs. I discuss the concept of a better company of designers as an outline for a new sort of professional organization in another essay: http://vi.to/better/.

Originally published in Distance 01, February 2012.