For a while now I’ve held the belief that UX Design doesn’t really exist, or more to the point shouldn’t. I’ve shared this belief a few times and gotten less than friendly reactions, so I’ve been keeping it to myself lately. But recent events have made me want to get it off my chest, so bear with me…
Users have experiences.
People have experiences all the time. Life is one giant experience that our brains break down, dividing moments into those that are memorable and those that aren’t and metaphorically “tagging” them as pleasant, painful, sad, exciting, etc.
I’m not arguing against that at all. What I’m talking about here is that User Experience Design doesn’t exist.
Reason 1: Users’ experiences are built on EVERYTHING.
An individual’s experience when using a product is affected by just about everything that went into making that product: the decisions on what functionality to include, how they work, how they look, how they’re built. As such, it’s important to recognize that everyone who was involved in the product’s creation had a responsibility to optimize that product for the desired experience.
Yet look at how we often set up our teams and organizations. We have our visual designers, developers, content writers/strategists, researchers… and UX designers. To organize our skill sets in a way that would give weight to the notion that one group in this list holds the responsibility for the user’s experience is counterproductive.
Reason 2: UX Designers often don’t define experiences.
Some will argue that there is a strategic component that the UX Designer is responsible for and that this is why they get the title. The UX Designer should be defining the experiences they want users to have.
I don’t necessarily disagree. I do believe in an approach to design called “Experience Design” (described at the end of this post) in which experience definition is the first step in designing.
But in most of the teams I’ve observed, this never happens. The UX team immediately dives into figuring out things like interface components, layouts, sitemaps and task flows. These things are critical, yes. But to say that UX design is the definition of how things are organized and how users will interact with them is inaccurate.
As I mentioned above, the user’s experience is built on much more than that. And besides, if UX Designers are just doing IA and IxD work, why aren’t we calling them that?
Reason 3: It’s not “not visual design”.
We seem to have let “Design” get away from us. More and more often, when I hear people say “I’m a UX designer” it seems quite apparent that one thing they’re trying to communicate is: “I’m not a visual designer”.
It’s clear that for most of the general population “design” translates to “prettification” and I understand where the desire to distance ourselves from that idea comes from.
Having labels to differentiate between things is exactly why they exist, but I can’t help feeling that by bucketing people under the label “UX” Design, we are allowing a misunderstanding of what design really is to continue.
Design is problem-solving, plain and simple. It is the creation of a solution aimed at achieving a specific outcome/goal (or a set of them). It can be done consciously or subconsciously. The fact that making things look nice is what most people think of when they hear “design” does not change what it is, it just means we’ve done a bad job at making what it actually is clear.
Reason 4: It’s not about technology.
Another argument I hear often is that the “UX” in the UX Design label signifies that we’re working in technology, designing digital products and services. But how can that be?
Use of any product or service, physical, digital or otherwise, results in an experience. The term “user experience” doesn’t help identify us as working in the digital space at all.
Reason 5: We’re not doing anything new.
Great designers, regardless of the types of things they design, have always understood the importance of experience, and of understanding who will be using their product and in what context that use will occur. None of this is new.
What we’ve done is take these concepts and methods and expose them to people working in the digital space. A space that was very immature with regard to how to design well.
Why was it so immature? The space is an easy one to get into. It doesn’t take much access to a computer, some software and maybe an internet connection. And most of the people coming into the space have no real background in “design”. Think about it. Marketers, graphic designers, computer science and info tech specialists… none of these areas of study focus on the creation of a product or service.
What Jesse James Garrett and others credited with the introduction of UXD did was expose people working in technology to some of the concepts and considerations that are needed for designing well. They did this under the label UX and it stuck. But it wasn’t really anything new. We owe them a great deal for opening so many people’s eyes, but it’s time to let the label go.
I once saw Dan Saffer tweet something along the lines of “You can replace 99% of the instances in which people use the label “UX Design” with just “Design” and the meaning is exactly the same.” I completely concur. What we’re doing is just design. Let’s accept that and stop trying to separate ourselves here.
Experience Design does exist.
Now, after putting my reasoning out there, I want to come back and say that I do believe in “Experience Design”. And no, there is more to it than just dropping the word “user”.
Experience Design is a mode of making design decisions. In it you first capture the experience you want people to have with a service or product. There are tons of ways to do this: writing out scenarios, comics, journey maps, anything that allows you to articulate how someone feels, behaves, thinks, etc as they interact with your product.
From here you make your design decisions like:
- What functionality should be included?
- What should the interface look like?
- What should the tone of content be?
… and so on.
Note that these decisions aren’t just IA and IxD decisions. They are ALL decisions that affect the individual having the experience. They can be visual design decisions, content decisions, development and infrastructure decisions, etc.
Now some people working under the title UX Design operate in this way, but many do not. As I mentioned before, most of the people I’ve met spend little to no time defining the experience before diving into the interface.
Also, please note that I’m not saying that as designers we can specify that a particular individual will have a specific experience when using a product. There are too many variables beyond our control for this. What I’m talking about is the optimization of a product’s design so that for most people in its audience, most of the components of the desired experience are elicited.
OK, so looking over what I’ve laid out, I can see that many people will see this as a semantic argument. I get that, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
What we call things is important. It’s critical in our ability to communicate well. Many of challenges we face in our various communities and societies stem from the fact that when we talk, we make agreements and arrangements because we’ve used the same terms and labels assuming they mean the same things to all of us. But then we walk away and do things differently, because to each of us, those terms and labels meant something a little different.
So yes, this is a DTDT argument I’m making. Love me or hate me for it, but I think it’s important.
So that’s my thinking. My goal here is not to discredit any of the work people working as UX Designers are doing. It is all important. Nor am I trying to call anyone a liar/scammer/con-artist or whatever. I’m merely trying to say that the label “UX Design” is not meaningful or needed.
As I mentioned, recent events (including some new goals I’ve set for my career path) have lead me to want to put this out there. I’m glad to see that others like Peter Merholz are thinking similar things. Honestly, it’s scary to be of the opinion that the community you’re a part of is based on a falsehood. I’m happy I’m not alone in it.