The Music Outlives the Band

Parental advisory for strong language, guru deflating and semantics.   

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak about “design thinking” at a web conference. The conference-speaking part was nothing new, but the topic certainly was. With the “design thinking” wave having just recently peaked, I had yet to even come up with a clear definition of the term. So I accepted the challenge and went about the business of putting a wrapper around the idea so I could map it to our work as strategists and designers.

What I found was a bit of a joke. The few snake-like definitions I was able to charm out of the depths of the interweb with magical flute-playing were no better, no worse, and no different than definitions of “interaction design,” which were in turn no different than definitions of “problem solving,” which we as a species have been doing since the dawn of humanity. So what was the big deal about design thinking? Well, the big deal was that some designer douchebag decided one day to rebrand “user experience,” presumably to bring his agency a few new dollars. Leader of IDEO or not (I’m talking to you, Tim), rebranding a profession for no good reason is not a noble nod to semantic precision, but an exercise in self-importance.

Besides this, it bothered me that those among us who spend our time fighting the good design fights were acting like we had nothing better to do, as if the world would solve its own problems while we were over in the corner deciding what to call our particular brand of ice cream. And it was at this point that I decided I no longer gave a fuck.

It doesn’t matter one bit what you name the band, it matters how good the music is. The reputation you build around the name will outlive even the stupidest, most drunkenly attempts at a moniker cool enough to guarantee future rock god glory.

And most importantly, while we were all busy debating syllables and word pairs, the world at large caught onto the moniker we’ve been using all along. On a near-constant basis these days, the term “user experience” is used by people whose expertise is in raising kids, or selling insurance, or milling sugar. It’s used by people who have no business even knowing what “user experience” means. It appears in dinner table conversations. It appears in write-ups about apps, devices, and gadgets galore. It’s in magazines, on television, and online.

“User experience,” as a term, is weak, ineffective, and inaccurate. But although I am among the many in our profession who believe this sad title we’ve assigned ourselves becomes less potent with each utterance, I happen to also believe we should guard it with our proverbial lives. “User experience,” like it or not, has become a household name. And the best chance any of us has at legitimizing a profession that invariably begs further explanation and qualification is to make it as easily recognized and banal as “carpenter” and “motorcycle mechanic.”

“User experience” either is or isn’t the best term to serve as the concrete beneath our careers. And we either give a fuck or we don’t. It’s our choice.

Let’s stop talking about what it’s called and start solidifying the world’s understanding of it. Some people build cabinets. Some fix motorcycles. We design sites and apps. It doesn’t matter how we do it. It matters how easy it is to accept that it’s real, it matters, and is a sound career path to describe when you meet your girlfriend’s parents over Thanksgiving dinner.

Fuck title debates. “User experience” has momentum. Let it roll, and get back to work.