The Music Outlives the Band

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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.

What is User Experience?

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I’m tired of discussing “user experience.” What it is, what it isn’t. I’m tired of talking about wireframes vs prototypes. I’m tired of the agile-lean-waterfall debates. I’m weary from discussing personas and sitemaps. I’m wary of design patterns, and I’m pretty sure the term “user” has held us back. Above all, I’m tired of defining the damn thing. None of this is what I practice, and these things aren’t user experience.

So what is UX?

Let’s talk instead about two kinds of people:

At the end of the day, there are those people who will go quietly about their jobs, perhaps grumbling about not having a “seat at the table.” These people may have also been taught the right way to do things. Then, there are others who–regardless of their titles or position–will stand up and say, “Wait a minute, why are we doing it this way?”

What sets these folks apart is a relentless curiosity.

They are the people who ask all the “what if?” and “why not?” questions. They disrupt processes when the process isn’t paying off. And they defy decisions, when the decisions don’t make sense. They may be subversive, but their goal isn’t subversion. Rather, they care. About the experience being designed for, and the people who will have to live with these experiences.

They care because of another vital quality: Empathy. They care about people. It’s not all about the paycheck for them. They care about what is created, because people will be affected, influenced, hindered or helped. They care about the business, people served by that business, and ultimately the world. They are curious, have empathy, and are vocal, which puts them in an interesting position.

Regardless of their appointed position, those who care will be found at the center of all that is designed, built, served, or otherwise experienced by people. These people will care about load times in browsers as well as long lines at the grocery store. They care about the details that make or break an experience: remembering a name, when someone on hold is transferred to another representative, or fixing the out of place pixel because, well, it matters.

They care about solving the real problems. And to be clear, they care about the business that enables these experiences. No customer=no business (and vice versa). Because they care about all of these details, they don’t fit neatly into an existing business unit. And they don’t even want their own business unit. They’d rather cut across silos, and grin at the magic that happens when people collaborate across disciplines.

These people have been around, long before the term “UX.” And these people will still be around, long after UX has either died out or hardened into a certifiable profession.

I am one of these people. I design experiences. Or I design for experiences, if we must mince words. I don’t do this because I was trained to do so. I do this because I must. I am a User Experience Designer. Or whatever they’re calling it these days.

Mythic Design

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When I agreed to teach a twelve-week course on user experience design, I did what anyone of us would do: I went to find something to copy. I trolled the articles and syllabi I could find online, and I was horrified. Sometime in the years between Jesse James Garrett’s lovely diagram and his incendiary demand that a room full of information architects, content strategists, and interaction designers rebrand themselves as user experience designers, user experience design had grown small. Jesse’s diagram starts with strategy and finishes with skin. His elements of user experience include deciding what to build, and how it looks. Yet the user experience designers I found were the wireframe people.

The wireframe people are designers who don’t design. They don’t make mental models, or do card sorts, or task analysis. They don’t write specs, and they certainly don’t do graphic design! They carefully do a collection of wireframes they then hand to “the designer” who hands it to the engineer. And the engineer, if he’s lucky, has a product manager who did all the interaction design work in the specs. And if he’s less lucky, he does it himself. No wonder many engineers view everyone except the graphic designer as essentially useless. Too often, they are. The wireframes people often call themselves user experience designers.

And forget stealing syllabi! Everywhere I looked classes taught Omnigraffle and touted the wonders of wireframes. No wonder the world was filling up with wireframe people.

So, to paraphrase the Grinch–who I was feeling like–“If I can’t find a user experience designer, I’ll make one instead!” I had a template in my mind of what I thought a user experience designer should look like. I had seen a new generation of designer I liked and hired every time I could.

They were medium-agnostic, code-fluent, and user-centered. They didn’t draw hard boundaries between information architecture and interaction design, and they flowed easily from task analysis into interface. When they did make wireframes, it was on whiteboards in conversations with engineers or as sketches in notebooks to clear their heads. I think of them as Mythic Designers because they would have been called unicorns by the specialists.

But even if these designers are rare, they do exist, just as family practice doctors still do in a world of cardiovascular surgeons and neurologists. These generalists do everything pretty darn well. They make good sites. They might not be the best people to call on if you had to build a Photoshop or a New York Times; complex interaction or massive content stores deserve the special skills of interaction design and information architecture. But if you are a startup, and you can hire one person, you want a real user experience designer. Just as when you don’t feel very good, you just want a doctor who can help.

But I was naive. You can’t make someone capable of designing a user’s experience in twelve weeks. I almost killed my poor students as I pressed five hours of lecture on interaction design into two, pounding them with conceptual models and use cases, activity-object models and task analysis. I knew I was teaching a foundations class and I would do nothing justice, but I kept trying. They wanted to learn Omnigraffle, I said no. They wanted to do wireframes, I told them wait. A student said, “I have never gone this long without designing anything,” and I despaired. They had designed task flows, use cases, site maps, conceptual models, and the basic social structure of their projects; and they thought they had designed nothing?

And then she said, “I’m so glad. We never get time to get our heads around our projects.”

And I got hope. I relented. My TA is going to run a workshop on Omni. I’ll teach them the fundamentals of interface design next week, in the guise of wireframes. Perhaps I’ll even start teaching them one way of doing something instead of three.

It has made me think that maybe the wireframe people wanted to do good design. And maybe they were given so little time to work, it was all they could do to choose between a multiple select list and radio buttons. And maybe they just needed to be taught some thinking tools and classic techniques. Perhaps what they really needed to be taught was to have faith in themselves, so they would demand the time it takes to make something worth making.

Ten years ago, they’d have been called web designers. In a sane world, we would have called them product designers. They chose their own name, user experience designers. And we old farts who have been designing forever need to help them, so they all can be called Mythic.

User Experience Go Away

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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.

Whither “User Experience Design”?

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Like a lot of folks, I find the term “user experience design” awkward and unsatisfying, at once vague and grandiose, and not accurately descriptive of what I do. Too often it seems like a term untethered, in search of something — anything — we might use it to name. And yet I often call myself a UX designer, and have done for the last few years, because at the moment it seems to communicate what I do more effectively to more people than any other term I can find.

Obviously I don’t stand alone in finding the term useful, or at least useful enough. Yet we find ourselves endlessly discussing this and and other terms for what we do … trying to describe what we do … disagreeing vigorously … and at the same time complaining about getting mired in an argument about semantics. Can’t we just get on with the work?

I don’t think we can. We cannot get past this argument about language just yet because I don’t think we really have an argument about language. We have an argument about what we do, a genuine and profound disagreement.

Looking at where the term “user experience design” comes from, and how we actually use it, I have a proposal for what we can take it to mean: design which includes interaction design but is not only interaction design.

People who think of interaction design as just one among many UX specialties may consider that a surprising overextension of that specialty’s relevance; I hope to show why it makes sense.

Trouble with the definition, not the word

I don’t much care which words we ultimately choose. Yes, it would help to use language which no one could mistake or confuse, but we cannot seem to find that and don’t strictly need it anyway. Consider the ugliness and inappropriateness of the term “industrial design.” We understand it not because it suits what industrial designers do, but because we already understand what industrial designers do and can attach the name to that generally understood meaning.

In “user experience design,” we don’t have that. We lack a clear meaning to which we can attach the term. Until we find one, the grumbling over names will continue.

Grandiose UXD

Some people like the grand implications of the term “user experience design.” They include anything where one plans what experience people will have, including not just websites but interior decoration and customer service scripts and theme park rides and kitchen knives.

I feel uncomfortable with the language of “user experience design” because I don’t think we need a name to describe all of those things. At that point, why not just “design”?

Looking back at how we came to talk about UXD in the first place, that large world of design problems didn’t give rise to talk of “user experience design.” The web did.

The web gave us UXD

The term “user experience design” came as a response to the shock wave created by the emergence of the web. For most people in the field, “user experience design” means, in practice, “design for the web … and other stuff like it.” So what is the web like?

Some people with a background in graphic design tend to think of web design as visual design plus a bunch of other Design Stuff. For a long time, a lot of web designers made a binary distinction between visual design and information architecture, effectively defining IA as “all the Design Stuff for the web which isn’t visual design.” These days, most define IA more crisply than that, distinguishing between information architecture as the organization of content and “interaction design” as … well … that gets a little tricky.

For some web designers, I suspect “interaction design” represents the frontier of web design as IA once did; having accounted for visual design and information architecture, “interaction design” means, in practice, the design on the web which ain’t either of those. Others have a more specific conception of what constitutes “interaction design.”

Interaction design

Over in the software development universe, people have long discussed “usability engineering” and “human factors” and “user interface design” and a host of other names for the same essential work. All of those terms have their problems: philosophical, rhetorical, political. You can locate me in the era and tradition I spring from by knowing that, in circles where I can expect people will understand me, I still prefer to call myself an interaction designer rather than a UX designer because I consider it a more usefully precise term.

When one encounters a computer, or a device, or any other system which has software in it, one enters into a dialogue with that system, a cycle of action and reaction. This includes both cycles of action between individuals and the system itself, and also cycles between different people as mediated by the system. Inter-action: action between people and systems, action between people and people. Systems containing software involve categorically more complex interactions than anything else we make, which gives those systems a unique character that calls for a distinct design discipline. Hence “interaction design.”

Back in the late ’90s the term “interaction design” got tangled up rhetorically because traditional advertising and design agencies used the term “interactive media” to describe the brochure-ware they made for the web.

More recently, many people have taken “interaction design” to mean only the pick-and-shovel work of wireframing and specifying workflows, not the fundamental product or service definition which lies behind the specific interaction behaviors.

Once upon a time I wanted “interaction design” to become the term which included all of this work defining new interactive systems. Things didn’t go that way.

Disciplinary distinctions

Interaction design. Information architecture. Visual design. Information design. Social interaction design. Service design. We have people who find these disciplinary distinctions very useful, believing that they represent well-defined types of work with reasonably well-developed methods. We have people who see talking too much about these distinctions as territorialism and semantic games that get in the way of just doing the work. Some among those have a deep skepticism that these distinctions mean much at all: compared to the classical disciplines of graphic design, industrial design, et cetera, we do not — and perhaps can not — have well-established methodologies for the new problems which designers face today. They talk in terms of a kind of open-ended design sensibility and developing an eclectic toolkit of specific techniques.

We should not minimize the differences between these philosophies. When we do, the disagreement displaces itself into discussions of language. Rather than ask what “user experience design” really means — a question with no answer — we should ask instead what problem we use it to talk about.

“User experience design” creates an uneasy truce

The term “experience design,” originally proposed by people who rejected disciplinary distinctions, has acted to paper over the disagreement.

These early advocates saw “experience design” as a way to name a new era in which the old disciplinary distinctions between design problems had broken down and become less relevant. They talked excitedly about UX design in its grandiose sense.

Then Jesse James Garrett drew his famous diagram of “The Elements of User Experience,” name-checking several different classes of design problems and suggesting a way of looking at their relationships, writing “user experience” in large letters on the diagram as a name for the whole. People who valued disciplinary distinctions could look at the diagram and see them represented there. People who wanted to transcend disciplines could look at the diagram and see the implication that each lived as part of a greater whole, incomplete on its own. So that diagram exemplified conversations which brokered an implicit truce under the banner of “user experience design.”

But we still need to understand and talk about This Thing That We Do, and we still do not agree about it. If UXD means “Designing Stuff like the web” we have to ask what we mean by “like the web.”

Interactive systems, not just the web

The 800-pound gorilla that is the web confuses our thinking. Web-ness per se did not produce the need which gave birth to the term “user experience design.” It didn’t come from people making simple websites with static pages, it came from people making web applications. And now we see it adopted by people making desktop software and mobile apps and more. What do those have in common? The network? Static websites involved the network … and we also see people talking about UX design for stand-alone desktop computer applications. So no, the network does not unify these UXD domains.

Software ties these things together. The Thing The Web Is Like is software, and in fact that statement says it backward. Better to say many things derive their nature from software, for example the web. What makes software special? What makes it different from the artifacts created with industrial design? From the images created with graphic design? From websites of static pages?

Interactivity.

More than just interaction design

One might call this focus on interactivity chauvinism on my part, since I come from interaction design.

Let me underline that I do not claim that interaction design constitutes the most important component of all UXD. Let us recognize service design and information architecture and visual design and social interaction design and all the other specific design disciplines we employ in solving UX design problems. Indeed, let us notice that in many cases other design disciplines outweigh the importance of interaction design in solving a UXD problem.

One may have a big retailer’s website and mainly need information architecture to organize the vast set of pages and visual design to make the pages appealing and aligned with the brand, with just a little bit of interaction design for the search and purchasing tools. One may have a member service process for an HMO which involves sophisticated service design and classical graphic design for communicating to members and just a little bit of interaction design for things like appointment setting tools.

I don’t want to make interaction design dominant over UX design but I do want to name it as essential to UX design. The presence of interaction design usefully defines “user experience design.” The term “user experience design” did not emerge from an encounter with the need for service design, information architecture, visual design, social interaction design, or any of the other problems we talk about in the UX design world. It emerged from the encounter with complex software behaviors and the interaction design challenges they present.

It makes no sense to ask what “user experience design” really means; it means whatever we use it to mean. We can ask what we need it to mean and how we already use it. I submit that we need a term for “designing systems that include interaction design”. And we already use “user experience design” to mean that now.

If we could agree on that, I might stop feeling so bad about calling myself a “user experience designer”.