A Perfection of Means and a Confusion of Aims

Written by: Abby Covert

“A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem” – Albert Einstein

My work involves helping people to understand how to best plan circumstances in which users are engaged and satisfied with their experience. Yet, I do not call myself a user experience designer.

I am an information architect. I work on clarifying information and the structure it should take to best enable understanding. I create maps, controlled vocabularies, diagrams, flows, hierarchies, and statements of truth to facilitate groups towards a goal. I do my own research. I use interviewing, contextual inquiry, and usability testing most often.

  • I am not an interaction designer. I do not explore, define, and refine the interactions that a user has with an interface and/or service.
  • I do not code, or render what a user will actually “see” through visual design.
  • I am not a content strategist. I do not extend structures and derive templates in order to propose governance and process flow for the creation of new information and the retiring of old.
  • I have done all of the above at one time or another.

I don’t think it is worth arguing about whether you can or should have a job in which you do all of these things. But I fear that the widespread adoption of “User Experience” has had adverse effects on the clarity of our process. It has made concepts like information architecture, content strategy and interaction design harder to explain, to teach and ultimately to learn about. In my humble opinion this umbrella is obscuring others’ view of our reality.

Our hindsight is clear, but our foresight is clouded

I am afraid that there is a shortage of specialist jobs, and it isn’t because those specialities aren’t needed. I believe it is because the value of those specialities, and the impact of not considering each carefully, is in too many cases not clearly called out to our clients and partners.

A simple test of this is asking, “If a UX fails, which part is to blame?” Is it a problem with the information architecture? The interaction design? Or maybe the content strategy? Maybe it is indeed all three or none of those three. Maybe it was badly produced or written? Maybe it has technical issues? Maybe the branding is off or the marketing didn’t drive the right people to do the right thing?

In picking apart an experience, the differentiation of terms suddenly offers tremendous value of focus. In focusing on a specialty we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We suddenly have lots of dials to play with in formulation of a strategy for improvement.

Our process is being reduced

In my experience when “UX” is the term sold-in, the resulting project plans are less likely to reflect the points at which various specialities will be relied upon to progress the team. Often prescribing a stacked to the gills list of tasks reduced to the nebulous “Design the User Experience” on the Gantt chart. The makers of these types of plans leave it to “UX Designers” to divide the time they have amongst the various specialities of a “UX” and arrange their time against it.

If you have a great generalist who is also a great salesperson, this model can work well. But more often I fear that we are putting our industry in a bad position by generalizing when communicating about these specialities with others. I hear designers say “I’m doing the UX” far too often when describing the value that they bring or the part of the process they are in.

The worst case scenarios result in teams jumping right to wireframes, prototypes and documentation. I see far too many UX designers that have become wireframe machines.

This approach is directly contrary to the truth of how things get made properly:

1. You must define the why before the what.
2. You must define the what before the how.

In other words, defining a solution before you understand the goal and prioritized requirements is often a wasted effort and a distraction. Whether you define everything on your own and work through the various specialities required is really not my point at all, my point is that these questions and these specialities are always needed and in some cases they are answered by different people.

Our specialists are struggling

I work primarily on large scale, systems-based projects. I am good at the defining the Why and the What. But when it comes to defining the How, I prefer to work with others more dedicated to that craft. Sometimes the user experience designers I work with struggle to understand and champion the value of information architecture. Sometimes they feel like I am taking away their fun. But in moments when they need the information architecture to be clearer, they are able to demarcate it clearly and ask me for what they need. After a few of these moments the process gets easier for all of us and consensus is more easily reached.

Why would I ever have to defend the value of IA on a team of like minded umbrella dwellers? Why do I see important steps skipped in favor of moving right to defining the How so often? I don’t think it is because I am working with the wrong people. I think it is because our industry has a long history of land grabbing of titles, processes, deliverables, and value.

Our road has been paved over by many, and driven over by many more

In the past year I have been told to change my title to product manager, design thinker, strategist, service designer, interaction designer and of course user experience designer.

The convergent nature of this industry has made our road a hard one to name, and I respect that deeply. But I don’t think the right strategy is giving up on naming it, stealing a name, or settling for a name that doesn’t quite fit.

I think this is about hunkering down and creating consensus. We need to define ourselves and our value. We need to learn to sell ourselves and the expertise of others under this umbrella. We need to remember what it is like to not understand these concepts. We need to create ways of explaining what we do that make sense outside of our silo. Lastly and maybe most importantly for our own sustainability as a field – we need to give permission to generalists to specialize.

These are important steps forward as we continue to become a legitimate field of practice. Our students, clients, heroes, and our peers deserve these levels of truth.

Our future is bright

Regardless of what you call what you do, it is a great time to be alive and contributing to this time of our industry. My greatest hope is that this is still fun to talk about when it is all said and done.

I am an information architect. One day I may be something else. For now, I see a need, and I want to keep on filling it.