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Convening a conversation between Usability and Planning Professionals

Summary (aka tl;dr)

World Usability Day and World Town Planning Day are two events celebrated very close together, in the first week of November. I propose having a joint project or event to lay the groundwork for conversation between urban planners and user experience practitioners, and the insights each can bring for navigating the urban and information landscapes. I’m looking for conveners who want to help me take this from idea to reality in time for 2011’s WUD/WTPD; we’ll be meeting August 23rd, 6pm at SFU Harbour Centre, Room 7021, to figure out what we want to do and what time we’ve all got to do it. If you work in planning or user experience (or both), consider joining us! And please RSVP (Twitter, comment on this post, etc.)


The purpose of World Usability Day and World Town Planning Day are, respectively, to stage events that draw attention to the importance and contribution of each respective profession on our everyday lives. Usability focuses on making the experience of technology less intimidating, pleasant, and appropriate; urban planners guide the creation of physical places the delight us while meeting a broad spectrum of needs. Both tasks are infused with values and assumptions that result in experiences that are welcoming, useful, and supportive in some cases, and haphazard, unattractive, or dysfunctional in others.

With mobile Internet access getting more widespread, and more people than ever in the world living in cities, I see these two professions having way more in common than different. Consider this:

  • both user experience designers and urban planners often serve as advocates for users of systems, working closely with other professionals with their own traditions and norms, such as (software or building) developers, architects or business analysts.
  • both are empowered to consider the contributions of effective processes to desired outcomes, as well as how those processes become institutionalized in organizational culture and procedure.
  • savvy communication and quality of collaboration is central to both fields.

But there are also some important differences — the scope and speed of projects, how explicitly technology tools figure into the process of work, the particularities associated with public sector or government regulation, and how knowledge and learning is disseminated within the body of professional practice.

Why this? Why now?

A glimpse through some recent headlines gives some important context. In the interests of brevity, I’ll touch only on two:

  • Apple, a company that revolutionized how we incorporate computing into our lives, briefly had a larger market cap than the world’s largest oil company – a highly symbolic moment when it comes to our collective, shifting relationship with the car.
  • In the aftermath of riots that ripped through London, the UK government has floated the idea of shutting down access to social networks in order to keep violence under wraps and to restore social order, recalling the role similar tools played in citizen protests in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

But there are also much more subtle innovations, nascent but promising. Crowdsourced funding for urban improvement projects. Reinvigorating public dialogue. Re-thinking relationships between citizens, government, and life in our communities.

There are plenty of conversations are already happening about the future of technological infrastructure in cities – but people’s rights or values are seldom the primary focus. In order for technology to result in tangible benefit to cities and the world, rather than tools for reinforcing the status quo, this conversation needs to be informed by, if not outright led by, people who live, work and thrive at the interface of people and systems — of information, policy, physical infrastructure, social norms, and the practices of everyday life.

With the World Usability Day theme of Education for Social Change, the interests and skills of urban planners and information professionals are not only intersecting but beginning to compliment each other. We use information to shape our experience of place, and place continues to infuse our lives with meaning we embed back into our personal expression online.

This is the richness of the conversation I wish to start with a WUD/WTPD event. How can we turn everyday moments and interactions in urban space into learning opportunities for positive social change?

As Adam Greenfield put it succinctly in the title of his book (that we’re still waiting patiently for), the city is here for you to use.

Kicking off

I am convening a meeting for volunteers —  planners and user experience professionals — in Vancouver who want to help me get an event for this November’s WUD / WTPD off the ground. It is taking place Tuesday, August 23 at SFU Harbour Centre, Room 7021.

We’ll need lots of help with things like seeking sponsorships, scoping and planning the event, deciding on final deliverables — but we also have a ton of documentation and methods to draw from!

Why volunteer?

  • shape something that’s new and never happened before!
  • network with people doing great stuff in mobile Internet, urban planning and public space issues around Vancouver!
  • develop project management, writing, and collaborate with people who do or build other interesting things!
  • contribute to the learning of your peer professionals at either PIBC or VanUE!
  • become more familiar with the ideas, people and organizations thinking about and working on the interaction of information and place in urban areas

Not in Vancouver?

Consider doing something along these lines where you are! Check out the World Usability Day website and your local planning professional organization — this list from Wikipedia might be good start. Have fun!

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