Whither “User Experience Design”?

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”.

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