Wednesday, March 02, 2005


Usability Professionals do pseudoscience

My advance program for the Usability Professionals Association meeting arrived, and I'm a bit miffed at who the UPA has chosen for the keynote speaker: an "expert in neurolinguistic programming (NLP)."

True, neurolinguistic programming is less offensive than astrology. Reasonable people have been known to speak favorably of neurolinguistic programming (NLP*, not to be confused with serious if also often disappointing NLP-- natural language processing. I'll refer to the neuro-nonsense with an asterisk -- I think someone originally wanted to trademark it, but missed the boat.) Usually such NLP* enthusiasts only know of it on a superficial level. A lot of NLP* sounds sensible, and that which is reasonable is so because it is common sense.

But NLP* claims to be revolutionary. And it's the revolutionary claims that turn out be be preposterous. NLP* zombies claim there are three "modalities" of understanding: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. Wow, this sounds like breakthrough stuff for understanding usability. What's more, depending on one's modality, one's eyes tend to shift upwards, or sideways or downwards. You can tell if a person is visual or auditory or whatever, just by looking at their eyes. Eyetracking has never had a bigger commercial promise, if you believe NLP*.

Sadly, NLP*, though 25 years old, was decisively disproven 25 years ago, and remains empirically invalid to this day. There is no credible evidence of modalities or eye movements. It was just a invented fiction that became a fact for its enthusiasts. And now the UPA is honoring this nonsense at its annual meeting.

I like that the fact that the UPA is for practitioners, and not academics. There are no tedious lectures about demonstration projects whose chief purpose seems to be acquiring funding for a phase two. Still, I expect the UPA to base their programs on factual material, and insights born of real experience. Even the closing plenary speaker, Aaron Marcus, is a disappointment. Aaron must be one of the most prolific writers in the usability/HCI sphere, but I have yet to read anything original from him -- he just recycles other peoples material. Come on UPA, give usability some credit for originality

Thanks for this blog. I tend to agree with you. I work at a major consultancy - doing some portal design but mostly focused on change management - in london and every training i have been to we have been "brainwashed" with nlp as a way to look at things. If i have more time, i'll write more about. But, interesting trend how the industry of consulting seems to grasp hold onto this.
Sure, NLP is one of those new religions. I have reviewed conference papers that use NLP ideas as part of the theory. Instant failure! Basically you cannot use pseudoscience as a theory for screen design (left right brain and metamodel stuff)

I'd like to follow up on this one. I feel a lot of people are being conned by NLPers.
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