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.


  1. Three years after the fact (IA 2009), we’re faced with this same problem. Your talk and Jesse’s talk were great “aha” moments, at least for me. I left that room thinking that the idea of the “product designer” was a done deal. Call me naive too.

    Thanks for having the patience to keep pushing.

  2. Thanks for starting this conversation!

    In 2002 Austin Henderson and I wrote an article in Interactions titled “Conceptual Models: Begin by Designing What to Design” (Interactions, Volume 9 Issue 1, January 2002).

    More recently we expanded that article into a book: “Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design” (Nov 2011, Morgan & Claypool,

    The basic idea is that if a designer wants users to develop a useful (and correct) mental model, you need to design a coherent, task-focused conceptual model and then design the UI from that.

  3. It’s as if my unicorn life and what i’ve attempted to pass on to my descendants has flashed before my eyes.

    UX will die unless more Padawans move beyond wireframes to the science of users, patterns and behavioral interactions. Lets hope our future is a bright one.


  4. We exist. And no one hiring will give us the time of day unless we’re established. Same as it ever was. To say nothing of the obstacles to getting to actually do that work in a typical organization.

  5. Hey Nemo, I’ve found that generalists are most appreciated in small organizations rather than large. You are gold to a startup. Sometimes you have to wander the world a bit before you find someone to appreciate your collection of skills. Don’t give up!

  6. I don’t mean to address this directly to the author, but I feel that often people in the industry invent new terms just for the sake of it or to increase their credibility. There’s sometimes a need for a new term or definition, but with UX design field it feels like it’s never ending. People address the same thing in different ways or use one word to describe different concepts.
    At the end of the day, imho, it creates a ton of confusion for both practitioners and their clients.
    It happens partly because the field itself continues to evolve (which is great), but i think we must be careful introducing new terminology, especially when we can influence other people easily.

    And this whole topic whether “User Experience” as a term can even exist is extremely annoying. Now, when so many people (outside the design field) finally learned that there’s something called UX and what it kind of means… there will be a wave of up-to-date designers who will tell them that in fact UX does not exists anymore.
    Changing/inventing terms all the time doesn’t create more credibility for UX field in general.

  7. “Perhaps what they really needed to be taught was to have faith in themselves”. I totally agree. I am not a mystic fan but this saying is what can set the difference between a teacher and a trainer.

  8. Great piece.

    And so sadly true. Most user experience designers, or user experience architect, are just Omnigraffle, or Visio, operators. As most IxDs are just Axure operators.

    It’s not only that they cannot design, the worst bit is that they don’t have any clue about design (in the broader sense of the term) or Interaction Design (or its wiser parent HCI, or its greater ancestor, ergonomics) or Users.

    It happened already with (graphic) design, lots of Photoshop operators, very few *real* designers.

    It all started with the mass transition from physical to digital, everybody became a designer, or (with the due differences) a developer. I think the results are out there for all to see.

    The worst part is the total absence of honest critique, in UX and design, and it’s so painful having to hear the glorification of *fake* glorious UX (in most cases, also, what’s really being glorified is UI) just to jump of the ‘cool bandwagon’ of whoever sells the most…

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