A Perfection of Means and a Confusion of Aims

“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.

Posted in Big Ideas, Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 8 Comments »

8 Comments

  • Adrian Howard

    November 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    > 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’m in 100% agreement with the problem – with the solution… I don’t know… not so much.

    I guess it all depends what ‘it’ is.

    Is “it” what we do? I like talking about Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Usability Testing, etc. I like even more talking about concrete practices like wire framing, story mapping, sketching, persona building, interviewing techniques, etc. I’m all for talking and defining the things we actually *do*.

    Is “it” who we are? I dislike talking about Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Usability Engineers, etc. I find the labels for the people who do the stuff we do… less useful.

    Because those divides between role titles are imaginary ones.

    Because there can be really great people whose list of skills sit in the overlap of the Venn diagram of role X, Y and Z. Not generalists – but specialists in a domain without a label.

    Because the role title X seems to always become “only we can do that” in an organisation – then prevents the value of X spreading out and becoming all encompassing.

    I just want to help make really neat things.

    Conversations about practices, skills and techniques help me do that.

    Conversations about role definitions rarely seem to help – and often actively cause problems.

    As soon as we define ‘us’ we have a ‘them’. As soon as we have a ‘them’ I think the problem of building great products becomes harder.

  • Mattias Arvola

    November 16, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I agree that we do need to decide the why, the what and the how, but not necessarily in that order. Sometimes you get a great idea, on inspiration from somewhere, or by accident. Then you need to trace your initial fascination with it back to the why. Why do you like this idea?

    Design methods research from 30 – 40 years back has taught us that the understanding of problems and the understanding of solutions co-evolve. This points towards multi-competent design teams that work together and not design processes when specialists do their work and hand it over to the next specialists. Particularly since a design decition concerning one level of design tend to propagate consequences for the other levels of design.

    Oh, I call my self interaction and service design researcher. Not that it matters that much.

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  • Jonathan

    November 17, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Hi Abby,

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you are saying that:

    a) People who pay for what is termed “UX” don’t understand the value of the various activities that come with it.

    b) The value of some of those activities is also being ignored (or devalued?) by those who work in UX.

    c) The problem at the root of a) and b) is the adoption of UX as an umbrella term that hides the value of its constituent parts.

    d) The solution is to present the constituent parts more clearly to the outside world, and encourage UX practitioners to specialise.

    Is that generally right?

    If so, then like Adrian, I’m not convinced the answer to this is in role definitions. If you need to explain the value of UX to anyone at around CEO level, your best bet is to lay off the role definitions entirely and position UX as what it is: helping to make something that people will want to buy or use. While that doesn’t entirely solve the explanation problem, if they don’t understand that as a starting point, then give up! Both you and them will shortly be jobless.

    As to avoiding conflict with (or having to explain your role to) your peers, isn’t that a matter for your boss? At least, as a manager, a large part of my role is making sure the team functions well, and that their work is necessary, recognised and appreciated (and I try to hire strategically to make that happen). If you feel you can’t add value, you need to leave, or your boss should dismiss you. I don’t think that’s particularly contentious.

    But as far as I can tell, if you look at most complex disciplines like finance, construction, marketing or the legal profession, UX isn’t much different. Overlapping roles, corner cutting, ignorant clients/bosses, and most of the issues you outline are all there too. I tend to think it’s essentially an insoluble problem, if it’s really a problem at all.

    Incidentally, while you don’t say this directly, I would agree that the value of non-visual design within the definition of UX is at best obscured, and at worst undermined, by the inclusion of visual design. Because visual design is about what’s seen and felt, it’s what employers/clients will naturally think of when the term “UX” comes up. This then causes big problems for non-visual designers, because as you point out, it’s easy to create something that looks good, but works badly.

    So if there is a solution, banish visual design :-) Ha ha, only serious.

  • DJ

    November 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    When managing upwards, simpler is always better, as Jonathan says.

    That there are inexperienced people and experienced people in UX is only natural.

    The good people know how to *orchestrate* user experience efforts – which means knowing which skillsets and people are appropriate for the team, the context, the job at hand. It’s just good management.

    More here: http://dcjarvis.posterous.com/100096145

  • Alex Martinez

    December 30, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Great article Abby, I see what you are saying. In the programming world, I do see more specialist than generalist. Great programming requires a high level of attention, a full time job in most cases. I think you refer to this as the “How”. Every so often I see someone that can do 2-3 things really well but even then they don’t have enough time to focus on 2-3 roles. I do IA work, code, content strategy and project management. I admit that I can’t focus on all these roles at once, which dilutes my contribution to the project.

    I tend to see a trend in organizations that forces web teams to be generalist in order to work on more projects. So seeing more people with “UX” titles is sometimes the result of an employer forcing us to handle more responsibilities.

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  • Aaron Hemmelgarn

    March 27, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    I think your statement “We need to create ways of explaining what we do that make sense outside of our silo.” hit the nail on the head for your entire article. The majority of people don’t understand the vital differences between what a UX, UI or IA person does and that is the root of the issue you bring up. I’ve worked on teams that have all three working together with a content strategist and have C level management ask, “what do you do again?” and then make statements like, “Then what do you do then?” to one us on the team. It’s as Adrian brings up in his comment, the titles become overlapped and muted together by the people we work for.

    Adrian statement: “Is “it” who we are? I dislike talking about Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Usability Engineers, etc. I find the labels for the people who do the stuff we do… less useful.
    Because those divides between role titles are imaginary ones.”

    This is exactly what I’m referring too, people don’t understand, nor like the differences in the titles. They want them lumped together as one, a UX person.

    Aaron Hemmelgarn – http://fiswebdesign.com

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