There is no UX for us
That’s right! I said it. For us (designers, information architects, interaction designers, usability professionals, HCI researchers, visual designers, architects, content strategists, writers, industrial designers, interactive designers, etc.) the term user experience design (UX) is useless. It is such an over generalized term that you can never tell if someone is using it to mean something specific, as in UX = IxD/IA/UI#, or to mean something overarching all design efforts. In current usage, unfortunately, it’s used both ways. Which means when we think we’re communicating, we aren’t.
Of course there is UX for us
If I was going to define my expertise, I couldn’t give a short answer. Even when UX is narrowly defined, it includes interaction design (my area of deep expertise), information architecture (a past life occupation), and some interface design. To do it well, one needs to know about research, programming, business, and traditional design such as graphic design as well. Once, to do web design you had to be a T-shaped person. This is defined as a person who knows a little bit about many things and a lot about one thing. Imagine a programmer who also understands a bit about business models and some interface design. But as our product complexity grows, we need P and M shaped people–people with multiple deep specialties. To design great user expereinces, you need to specialize in a combination of brand management, interaction design, human-computer factors and business model design. Or you could be part of a team. The term UX was welcomed because we finally had an umbrella of related practices.
Of course, we don’t all belong to the same version of that umbrella. We all bring different focuses under the umbrella, different experiences, mindsets, and practices. While we can all learn from each other, we can’t always be each other.
But trouble started when our clients didn’t realize it was an umbrella, and thought it was a person. And they tried to hire them.
It isn’t about us
If there is any group for whom UX exists now more than ever it is non-UXers. Until 2007, the concept of UX had been hard to explain. We didn’t have a poster child we could point to and say, “Here! That’s what I mean when I say UX.” But in June 2007, Steve Jobs gave us that poster child in the form of the first generation iPhone. And the conversation was forever changed. No matter whether you loved, hated, or could care less about Apple, if you were a designer interested in designing solutions that meet the needs of human beings, you couldn’t help but be delighted when the client held up his iPhone and said, “Make my X like an iPhone.”
It was an example of “getting user experience right.” We as designers were then able to demonstrate to our clients why the iPhone was great and, if we were good, apply those principles in a way that let our clients understand what it took to make such a product and its services happen. You had to admit that the iPhone was one of the first complete packages of UX we have ever had. And it was everywhere.
Now five years later, our customers aren’t saying they want an iPhone any more. They are saying that they want a great “experience” or “user experience.” They don’t know how to describe it, or who they need to achieve it. They have no clue what it takes to get a great one, but they want it. And they’ll know it when they see it, feel it, touch it, smell it.
And they think there must be a person called a “user experience designer” who does what other designers “who we’ve tried before and who failed” can’t do. The title “user experience designer” is the target they are sniffing for when they hire. They follow the trail of user experience sprinkled in our past titles and previous degrees. They sniff us out, and “user experience” is the primary scent that flares their metaphorical nostrils.
It is only when they enter our world that the scent goes from beautiful to rank. They see and smell our dirty laundry: the DTDT (Defining The Damn Thing) debates, the lack of continuity of positions across job contexts, the various job titles, the non-existent and simultaneously pervasive education credentials, etc. There is actually no credential out there that says “UX.” Non! Nada! Anywhere. There are courses for IxD, IA, LIS, HCI, etc. But in my research of design programs in the US and abroad, no one stands behind the term UX. It is amorphous, phase-changing, and too intangible to put a credential around. There are too many different job descriptions all with the same title but each with different requirements (visual design, coding, research being added or removed at will). Arguably it is also a phrase that an academic can’t get behind. There aren’t any academic associations for User Experience, so it’s not possible to be published under that title.
Without a shared definition and without credentialed benchmarks, user experience is snakeoil. What’s made things even worse is the creation of credentialed/accredited programs in “service design” which take all the same micro-disciplines of user experience and add to it the very well academically formed “service management” which gives it academic legitimacy. This well defined term is the final nail in the coffin, and shows UX to be an embattled, tarnished, shifty, and confusing term that serves no master in its attempt to serve all.
“User experience design” has to go
Given this experience our collaborators, managers, clients and other stakeholders have had with UX; how can we not empathize with their confused feelings about us and the phrase we use to describe our work.
And for this reason UX has to go. It just can’t handle the complexity of the reality we are both designing for and of who is doing the designing. Perhaps the term “good user experience” can remain to describe our outcomes, but user experience designer can’t exist to describe the people who do the job of achieving it.
Abby Covert said recently that the term UX is muddy and confusing. Well, I don’t think the term “user experience” is confusing so much as it’s a term used to describe something that is very broad, but is used as if it were very narrow. There is a classic design mistake of oversimplifying something complex instead of expressing the complexity clearly. UX was our linguistic oversimplification mistake. We tried to make what we do easy to understand. We made it seem too simple. And now our clients don’t want to put up with the complexity required to achieve it.
Now that the term has been ruined (for a few generations anyway), we need to hone our vocabulary. It means we can’t be afraid of acknowledging the tremendous complexity in what we do, how we do it, and how we organize ourselves. It means that we focus on skill sets instead of focusing on people. It means understanding our complex interrelationships with all the disciplines formerly in the term UX. And we must understand that they are equally entwined with traditional design, engineering and business disciplines, communities, and practices as they are to each other.
So I would offer that instead of holding up that iPhone and declaring it great UX, you can still use it as an example of great design, but take the simple but longer path of patiently deconstructing why it is great.
When I used to give tours at the Industrial Design department at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) I would take out my iPhone and use it to explain why it was important that we taught industrial design, interaction design, and service design (among other things). I’d point to it off and explain how the lines materials, and colors all combined to create a form designed to fit in my hand, look beautiful on my restaurant table, and be recognizable anywhere. Then I would show the various ways to “turn it on” and how the placement of the buttons and the gesture of the swipe to unlock were just the beginning of how it was designed to map the customer’s perception and cognition, social behaviors, and the personal narrative against how the device signalled its state, what it was processing, and what was possible with the device. And I explained that this was interaction design. Finally, I’d explain how all of this presentation and interaction were wonderful, but the phone also needed to attach a service to it that allows you to make calls, where you can buy music and applications and that the relationships between content creators, license owners, and customers.
At no time do I use the term “user experience.” By the time I’m done I have taught a class on user experience design and never uttered the term. The people have a genuine respect for all 3 disciplines explored in this example and see them as collaborative unique practices that have to work intimately together.There is no hope left in them for a false unicorn who can singularly make it all happen.