User Experience Go Away

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.

Posted in Big Ideas, Design Principles, Interactivity | 8 Comments »

8 Comments

  • Chris Stone

    November 16, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Hey Dave,

    I get the point but feel that that this will naturally play out on an individual practitioner level. You’ve nicely articulated what I might call a macro concern that will continue on regardless of any one of us until it evolves naturally through business speak. The business world hasn’t banished the umbrella term “business development” because it was unclear, unspecified, at times downright misused and misunderstood.

    The term “UX” may be subjectively ‘ruined’ on an academic level but I have not once seen it get in the way of doing the job that needs to be done in a professional capacity and it most certainly is not snakeoil when talking to potential employers. The snakeoil comes in when you have people selling themselves as UX designers because they read a book or two and a Boxes & Arrows post. But hey, that happens in EVERY industry and is nothing unique to UX.

    We *might* have a chance to cleanse the micro-culture of experience design professionals still debating the UX label but I don’t see it going away any time soon on a macro level or in a business discussion. I’d just as soon drop the conversation entirely as this discourse seems to give it more fuel.

    I say all of this knowing full well that you can easily crush me (and likely will next time I see you ;^) on the academic underpinnings and complexities of why you feel UX should die as a term so I’m not going anywhere near that now. I simply don’t see it doing harm in the workplace. I actually see it gaining tremendous, positive, momentum in a good way that’s creating highly respected positions (aka. jobs) for practitioners of Experience Design and overall embracing of that line of thinking in the workplace. Hell, I’m now officially in Strategy. Crazy, eh?!

    Buzzwords are unavoidable. Businesses are endlessly looking for competitive advantage and UX is, for better or worse, in the spotlight (which we should be thankful for, knowing that it WILL end) with “Design Thinking” & “Service Design” close on it’s heels and “Design Research” coming soon to a strategy meeting near you. I guarantee someone read an article about REI’s internal work and is now trying to figure out how to make “Cross-channel experience designer” fit on a business card as we speak.

    Do I care? Nope.

    Anyone good at what they do will find good work. The bullshit UX quacks will be filtered out. UX’ers as a whole need to focus on the power of professional networking, not labeling (in this case ;^).

    You do great work and that stands for itself. The rest is semantic blockage.

    Party on…

  • Richard Dalton

    November 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    What he (Chris) said.

  • Gaurav Anand

    November 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I agree with Chris’s comments. While the article is thoughtful and well-written, the topic itself is a non-issue. Some terms, no matter how ambiguous, have lived and will continue to live. Some examples come to mind: Business Development, Strategy, Consultant, Innovation, even Design. So User Experience is equally good.

    Actually, if you think deeper, the term is pretty accurate. In the end, regardless of our titles, we are all contributing to designing experiences. Visual Design, Interaction Design, Information Architecture, etc are all means to the larger goal of good user experience. So it is absolutely fine to call all of us as User Experience Designers, because that is what we are doing in the end. We are either “Information Designing” or “Interaction Designing” or “Visual Designing” the “Experiences” for “Users.” Even John Dewey gave his seminal work a broad title “Art as Experience”, though in it he talks in detail about all the constituents of experience such as Energies, Expression, Form, Substance, etc. In the same vein, interaction, visual, etc are all constituents of experience.

  • Petteri Hiisilä

    November 17, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    This topic is more relevant for universities and students than for those working in design agencies and corporations.

    Just like Chris said, for those working in the industry this is not a big issue. That’s my experience too.

    But one of my design team junior members is contemplating a move far abroad to get a Master’s on “UX with special emphasis on interaction design” and not so much visual or even service design.

    It’s not easy at all for her to choose, which university or curriculum to take. There’s wild variation in what they emphasize or specialize on, and tuition costs differ with a factor of 10. Web pages don’t have enough information to make a decision. The only way to be sure is to talk to those who took it. But she doesn’t know any, so she needs to Google discussion boards.

    Slashdot asked a similar question today, and the responses reflect what’s above: those working in the industry don’t think it’s a big problem, and researchers/teachers/students say it makes all the difference.

    “Computer Science vs. Software Engineering” http://developers.slashdot.org/story/12/11/17/2039231/computer-science-vs-software-engineering

  • Petteri Hiisilä

    November 17, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    This thread illustrates the chasm better, they had the same discussion in the previous week too: http://ask.slashdot.org/story/12/11/10/2038211/ask-slashdot-developer-or-software-engineer-can-it-influence-your-work

  • The importance of user experience design specialists

    November 19, 2012 at 6:36 am

    […] I’m not arguing that we should throw away the title of UX Designer, as some have suggested. I’m saying that we have a responsibility to know that the field is made up of many […]

  • Damian

    January 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Never before have I read an article and then seen a better comment! Chris – Do you have a blog?

  • Dave Malouf

    January 11, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Hello Chris (and his disciples),
    I partially agree w/ you. No, I won’t crush you w/ any academia. I have an academic mindset and institutional background, but I’m no academic.

    Where I have seen the issue most is at career fair here at SCAD. Students and hiring managers have a really difficult time matching up with each other due to this issue.

    That being said, the other issue I’ve seen is as someone looking for work, the variation of what a UX Designer can be is quite infuriating.

    In general though I find the term is conflated. Biz Dev in my experience doesn’t have the big x-taxonomical problem where the term is used both for something specific and general–sometimes in the same talk.

    People will use it synonymously as usability, or viz design, or experience, or service instead of the umbrella term it really is and best used as. As a group of people dedicated to clarity of systems, how can we be satisfied with “semantic blockage”. It’s our job to be the drano of “semantic blockage” or the exlax (pick your choice).

Sorry, comments are closed.