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Interview with Ben Lauren – Director of Publications

How did you originally get involved with UXPA? 

When I first started at Michigan State in 2014, I was brought in as their first hire in a new major called Experience Architecture. And so I was told, “Hey, we’re trying to build this major. We’ve got some students who have already said that they’re interested in the major. And so, you know, it’s upstart, it’s brand new, it’s UX in the context of the humanities.” And I was like, oh, that’s cool. My Ph.D. is in technical communication and rhetoric and from Texas Tech University. And I had been doing UX, in the context of “tech com”, that’s what we call technical communication. So I’ve been doing UX in that context for a while via usability testing and document design and some research. But I didn’t fully know that, for instance, contextual inquiry was a UX method. At the time, I had a lot of dots left to connect. 

So I taught our first Introduction to Experience Architecture course that fall semester. The students came in and they were like, so what’s this, what is Experience Architecture? And I was thinking to myself, we have this new major, it’s not called user experience, it’s called this other thing. So I really sort of set out that semester to learn as much as I could about all the different organizations and groups that were involved in UX. And I already knew what they were in tech com and I had served as president of a local chapter of the Society of Technical Communication. And I lived in Florida and I thought, what’s the equivalent of STC in UX. And so I discovered UXPA and I discovered that they were having a conference and this was in San Diego, I think in 2015. So I went to the director of the XA program, Liza Potts, and I said I found out about this organization UXPA, and she said that UXPA is wonderful, it’s like the premier organization in UX, you should definitely engage and said we will support you in presenting and all the rest of that. And so I went to that conference and I presented a poster and I just kind of remember walking in and I don’t really know what to expect, but I met and talked with Jakob Nielsen about studying UX and the humanities alongside rhetoric. And I’ll never forget. He said to me, studying rhetoric and UX is a really good idea, so I gave him a flyer for our program, and I went to an Intuit presentation and I just remember walking out feeling really energized by the really cool and engaging work that was kind of at the fringes of my field. And I felt that I had found a home in that people weren’t doing this in the context of their office, and then it didn’t impact daily lives. The scale of it drew me in immediately like, wow. Watching Intuit talk about how they tried to transform the way their company thought about empathy from top to bottom was the most energizing thing I had seen because it was all sort of change management and I saw the potential of UX at a broad scale that I had never seen before. And I saw that at the first UXPA conference. 

So that’s kind of how I ended up getting involved and thinking to myself, wow, I really want to be more involved in UXPA. And then over the years, I just had more opportunities to engage. I got to write for the magazine and other stuff like that. I got to present at another conference with other colleagues, that was the Toronto conference, so I got to do that. And I wanted to stay more involved and then the pandemic hit. So that’s the long version. And I suppose it just literally started as me going, “What are the different organizations in UX?”. Then finding UXPA and saying, I think I want to present at a conference, actually getting in and getting the opportunity to present. Then just going to sessions and feeling energized and saying, I want to stay involved with this organization in some way. And so I’ve managed to, over the years of my career, engage with UXPA at different moments by writing magazine articles. I’ve always wanted to publish with the Journal of Usability Studies (JUS). That’s something I’ve never gotten the opportunity to do yet, but I’ve always thought I want to publish with JUS one day.

Why did you choose to run for this role in the UXPA International Board of Directors?

There’s a couple of reasons. The first is that it gave me an opportunity to work with UXPA in a capacity that I hadn’t been able to do yet. And I am at a stage of my career where doing so is expected of me. So working with international organizations in different capacities and serving is part of what my job entails as an associate professor, at least that’s how I see it, so the timing was right because I’m tenure.

Three years ago, approximately during the Toronto conference, I was talking with some board members about possibly running for different positions but the timing wasn’t right, because I wasn’t tenured yet. And so, as I thought about it more, I didn’t pursue it at that time because the timing just wasn’t right. So I had been thinking about this actually for a while but I didn’t know what the clock thought. I also didn’t know there was a Director of Publications. Having published in UXPA magazine and knowing about JUS since I was a grad student and reading articles and assigning articles to people in JUS I was always thinking to myself, wow, I really loved those publishing venues. And so, I didn’t know there was a Director of Publications until they advertised it, and I thought that’s a job I would want to do. That’s a job I feel compelled to do. 

You get to help shape conversations about UX. And that’s kind of where my work has been living. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in trauma-informed design and institutional change in UX. And so I thought this would be a really good moment to bring in conversations about anti-racism, trauma-informed design, anti-racist peer review practices that people in my field have been taking up in thinking a lot about, accessibility and disability. And so those are just some of the things that I ran on because I feel passionate about them. And I feel that it’s a good moment for steering conversations into new directions. And I thought, well, maybe I can help to do some of that with existing editorial teams that are really good. Although now they’re looking for a new magazine editor I just saw too. So, you know, I’ll get an opportunity to help bring on a new magazine editor.

So the opportunity to shape those conversations, the timing of the moment, the organization itself, and how much it energized me as a young professional, and now as somebody who’s kind of approaching mid-career, how exciting I still find the work, it just was something I felt like I couldn’t pass up. Not to mention the people in the community have been really welcoming, and kind, and that’s one of the things that really drew me to UXPA. 

Sometimes you ask yourself questions about whether you belong in a space, and I’ve always felt that at UXPA, I’ve found like-minded professionals who are interested in getting better at what they do. And so that’s something that I felt really compelled by and felt, well, I can work in this space. I can be effective and I can do good work. And so I threw my hat in the ring to see what would happen if people would agree with me.

What are some of your specific responsibilities as Director of Publications?

So one of the things that I’ll be doing is we’re trying to get the Journal of Usability Studies into the Web of Science. And so there are some steps that have to be taken in order to do that, so that’s one of the big things that I’ll be working on frankly is trying to get the journal indexed. 

I’ll also be working on some special issue topics that I mentioned, and I’m still early on in it. So there’s lots that I have to learn. I also want to be careful that all the excitement that I bring isn’t about interrogating and saying bad things about the people who’ve been there. It’s not that at all. I think it’s just a continuation of the work. But I would love to find special issue editors or help people locate authors who might be doing work in particular areas that haven’t been published before. And so that’s something that I’m really interested in helping do, but then there are other things like helping them manage processes behind the scenes, editorial processes, and stepping in when people need help to get work done.

I also serve on the Board of Directors, which means that not only am I helping to think about the conversations that we have in the publications, but I also get to think about the organization as a whole and contribute to that discussion, including conferences and things like that. So there’s a lot of opportunities to have an impact and to participate in UXPA international as an organization. So that’s something I’m also excited about.

Did you want to expand any more on your platform or your goals as Director of Publications?

If I were gonna expand on the statement that I shared when running, I would say that three years is a fast period of time and I don’t aim to disrupt the good work that people have done, nor do I hope to upend all of their editorial processes. I hope to step in and be seamless in that. What I do hope to bring is that mindset of, we’re better off when we learn from each other. I think academics and academia, and industry often see themselves as these two separate entities. And I like to think of us all as people who work in UX but just work in different spaces. It’s like I consider myself a UX professional that just happens to work in an academic role and so it’s a more community-focused approach to thinking about UX and I hope that my influence over publications will create opportunities for more academic-industry collaboration where we’re trying to foster more across-silo collaborations as much as possible and I would say that that is my central mindset in approaching the work and in wanting to do the work well. So I walk in saying what can I learn and what can I share that will be helpful, and how can we make this a productive relationship and so that’s kind of the way that I’m thinking about it. But I do have an agenda in terms of special issue topics and things like and I do want to ask the community to think along those lines so that we can publish on it. I think that trauma-informed design is an emerging form of thinking about the work that we do in UX and it’s really important because we work with humans, many of them have experienced trauma, and sometimes our protocols for doing that work is not trauma-informed and it’s harmful to people, and maybe we don’t even know it. So those are things that I’m really interested in. 

Do you think that your election in this role will have an impact on the Michigan UX community? 

That’s a good question, I don’t know if I can even predict how. I guess I could say, briefly, when I came to MSU in 2014, the community largely seemed to be around the University of Michigan’s program in information, and it’s a great program and it’s created a lot of really amazing UX folks. That first year I also went and presented at, I think it was the very first Ignite UX Michigan. I met so many amazing people at that and now it’s an annual thing that all of the XA students go to which I think is really cool. What happened is that the first time I went it was me and one or two other MSU people and we all were like oh wow, there’s MSU people who care about UX. I remember thinking to myself there’s a real opportunity here for us and now over time, XA students are a regular feature there, and Michigan State has had a real sort of renaissance in terms of its UX footprint I would say. So I think if anything it’s really a cool moment because I’m a core faculty in XA and now here I am on the Board of Directors for UXPA and I really think that that speaks a lot about the MSU program and I’m hopeful that I can represent it well to people at UXPA because I think that the UXPA local chapter is an important part of the UX community here in Michigan. And I know Darren is serving and Darren works at MSU as well so it’s a good moment for MSU I think in terms of UX and I hope that it contributes positively as a result to the local community. 

Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to share with the Michigan UXPA community? 

I’m really excited and I’m also open to hearing people’s ideas and thoughts so I want to be accessible to folks, so if people have ideas or thoughts or are interested in publishing, or they themselves are interested in getting involved in the publication’s or in UXPA to let me know so that I can help get them involved. I don’t want to be somebody who’s distant, we are still in a pandemic so even saying here’s my UXPA email address where people can reach out to me or find me on social media and talk to me. I’m really always interested in students writing stuff too, I don’t think it has to be limited to someone who has a degree, or an industry professional, I want to be very open to folks getting involved in and help to facilitate that and I will, so I just want to encourage people to engage me in those types of conversations too.