An era has passed. Many in the user experience (UX) and web development worlds were shocked to hear last week that a small company in San Francisco called Adaptive Path had been acquired by, of all companies, Capital One.

With the announcement, company co-founder Jesse James Garrett -- author of the foundational UX book, "The Elements of User Experience" and now chief creative officer at the company -- assured his community not to worry. While they would be closing the celebrated consulting business that helped kickoff the web 2.0 movement, the cherished events the company produced, including UX Week, UX Intensive and The Service Experience Conference would continue.

Still, you have to wonder. With the acquisition of what is arguably one of the world's foremost UX firms, is UX dead?

Has Empathy Left The Building?

I have a business and personal relationship with several employees at Adaptive Path. Still, when I read the news, I was both surprised and torn. I was not surprised that Adaptive Path was acquired. The talent inside the firm that once helped introduce Ajax is truly phenomenal and the brand is the envy of every design-centered agency and consultancy. I was, however, truly surprised by the destination.

I could not believe that of all the possible acquirers of a group of web consulting rockstars the buyer that would emerge would be a financial firm. This seemed strange to me at first, but upon considering the question "what's in your wallet?," it all made sense. 

I can see how a financial services enterprise that is looking to expand upon and improve its myriad of touch points would want to partner with pioneers and experts in the newly mainstream service design industry, especially so when you remember that Capital One's best-known touch point -- plastic credit cards -- could disappear from the world as we know them. 

Rockstars Sell Tickets

I'm skeptical about the commitment to keep the ongoing events business. Narrowing its scope to financial services could ultimately limit the ability to be recognized as a leading cross-industry strategy and design shop. Of course, being known as the best is not a requirement now given that its consulting business is going away. 

What I’m referring to is the registration draw for the events. The number one brand promise of the Adaptive Path events is that you’ll be with the best teacher-practitioners from many industries. With the new model, you can’t exactly say that anymore. I am also curious as to what Capital One executives will say when they fully understand that Adaptive Path participants will want to talk about the firm's work work in front of audiences that may include key competitors.

The folks at Etsy, an e-commerce company, neatly skirt this last issue. They are fully transparent on the codeascraft blog about their commitment to contributing to open source software and with their omnipresent participation at Velocity and other DevOps events. Etsy is, after all, a benefits corporation formed to give back to society. But even the Etsy folks are not discussing things that could reasonably allow a competitor to make serious inroads against them. 

I could see a world where Capital One's Adaptive Path will continue its commitment to blogging, sharing and events in an effort to keep fresh design talent in the enterprise, and I do hope this will happen. However, I think it will be a tough job for anyone to keep it present and as rife with industry-leading content as it is now.

The Band Plays On

I had the personal good fortune to be mentored by both Adaptive Path CEO Brandon Schauer early in my career, and more recently Managing Director Patrick Quattlebaum. In a quick conversation with Quattlebaum, he seemed very upbeat about the news and was excited at the opportunity to expand the practice of service design with the full support of a large enterprise.

Being a long-term UX practitioner with deep roots in the employee experience space, I’ve been a little bit nervous about both the service design and customer experience movements. I told Quattlebaum some of my concern about how customer experience has put an additional tilt, relative to user experience, to focus on customer experiences more than employee experiences. 

Quattlebaum was not phased in the slightest. "We're focused on people and needs on both sides of the equation, the service provider and the served," he wrote in an email. "Service design (as we practice it) looks to align customer and employee experiences to deliver sustainable value and enduring relationships."

Humanistic and Holistic

With leaders like Quattlebaum and Schauer, it appears service design will stay true to a view that is both humanist and holistic. At its core, service design is not only human-centered, but also is underpinned by design thinking, which has a holistic view where employees are part of an ecosystem that delivers exceptional experiences. 

While we did not talk about what this move means for UX, I remain convinced that the humanist foundation built within the Adaptive Path team will never allow UX to die. Instead, I think it will lean into a future when UX tools, approaches and even the very language we use to describe the craft of designing experiences for all kinds of humans continues to evolve.

Service design has taken center stage now in many design circles and this acquisition marks a real endorsement by a large institution. What remains to be seen is whether service design as a concept will fully surpass where UX has gone.

Title image by GollyGforce  (Cropped) / (Flickr) via a Creative Commons license.