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Recently I was going through a box of old books, journals, and other material when I ran across this proceedings CD-ROM from the UPA 2007 conference:

UPA 2007 Proceedings

Since I had attended that conference as well as this year’s 2017 conference, I started wondering how things had changed in those ten years.

The Usability Professionals Association, or UPA, was the original name of the organization that we now know as the User Experience Professionals Association, or UXPA.  UPA was founded in 1991 and the name was officially changed to UXPA in 2012 to better reflect the breadth of work that its members do.  So that name change is one thing that happened during those ten years.

Being a quant geek, I started analyzing the titles of the presentations from the two conferences. The 2007 conference had 51 presentations while the 2017 conference had 69 presentations.

The 2007 Conference

Here’s a word cloud of the top 50 words from the titles of the 2007 presentations:

Word Cloud of UPA 2007 Presentations

And here are the top 15 words and their frequencies:

1. usability 21 (4.4%)
2. user 13 (2.8%)
3. design 10 (2.1%)
4. web 7 (1.5%)
5. designing 5 (1.1%)
6. case 5 (1.1%)
7. product 4 (0.8%)
8. centered 4 (0.8%)
9. testing 4 (0.8%)
10. how 4 (0.8%)
11. data 3 (0.6%)
12. information 3 (0.6%)
13. international 3 (0.6%)
14. study 3 (0.6%)
15. interface 2 (0.4%)

It’s perhaps not surprising that the most frequent term by far was “usability”.  Other frequent terms included “user”, “design” or “designing”, “web”, and “case” (from “case study”, of which there were several).  Other terms like “testing” and “study” also reflect an empirical research focus.

The 2017 Conference

Here’s a word cloud of the top 50 words from the 2017 conference:

And here are the top 15 words and their frequencies:

1. ux 17 (2.6%)
2. design 15 (2.3%)
3. research 8 (1.2%)
4. designing 7 (1.1%)
5. how 7 (1.1%)
6. experience 6 (0.9%)
7. career 5 (0.8%)
8. user 4 (0.6%)
9. work 3 (0.5%)
10. next 3 (0.5%)
11. stories 3 (0.5%)
12. insights 3 (0.5%)
13. testing 3 (0.5%)
14. data 3 (0.5%)
15. experiences 3 (0.5%)

So “UX” has now taken over the top spot, followed closely by “design”.  If you combine “design” and “designing” they would have taken the top spot.  Likewise, combining “experience” and “experiences” would have put them near the top. But to me the most interesting thing isn’t what’s in this word cloud and list but what’s not in it: “usability”.  In fact, only one presentation had the word “usability” in its title: Introducing A New UX Maturity Metric: The Team Engagement Score (TES) During Usability Testing. (This presentation was given by my good friend, colleague, and book co-author Bill Albert, Director of the User Experience Center at Bentley University.)

2007 vs. 2017

In 2007, many people were doing “usability” work– especially people in UPA.  At the time, the team I managed at Fidelity Investments was called the usability team.  But I think part of what happened in the intervening years is that people began to realize that the term “usability” was commonly viewed as synonymous with “usability testing” or “usability evaluation”.  In reality, many people who were doing usability work were, in fact, doing much more than just usability testing, including such things as contextual inquiry, heuristic evaluation, and information architecture design.  And one thing I keep learning over and over is that our words really do help shape our thoughts. So I think many people and teams realized that calling what they do “usability” work tended to pigeon-hole them in the minds of others. So as the term “UX” started gaining in popularity, they saw that a shift to that term might more accurately reflect what they do.  For example, somewhere in those intervening years we changed the name of our team at Fidelity from the Usability team to the UX Research team.

You can see this shift in terminology from the Google searches over the years.  Here’s a graph from Google Trends showing the relative frequency of searches for “usability” and “UX” from 2004 to 2017:

You can see that the “crossover” actually happened in 2006, with “UX” first clearly exceeding “usability” in Google searches.  (I’m very curious to know what caused the spike in “UX” searches in March 2013, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with a good theory.)

I’m sure that our field will continue to evolve.  It will be interesting to see what changes the next ten years bring.

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