09 Jan

User Experience Turned Inside Out: Let’s Just Do Great Work

Whenever I come across, or get sucked into, a conversation about how to define User Experience, or what does and doesn’t count as bonafide practice, I find myself asking, “why does it matter?” Yes, I have struggled to provide a succinct answer when asked, “what do you do?” But I’ve long given up hope of securing an imprimatur of the craft I practice, and instead have settled on a selection of audience-specific answers.

  • To strangers: “I design software.”
    (Signifies that I work with computers.)
  • To relatives and neighbors: “I help companies build software.”
    (Similarly signifies that I work with computers, while indicating that I cannot help fix their internet.)
  • To developers, designers and others with whom I collaborate: “I do information architecture, interaction design and usability testing.”
    (Hopefully delivered in a tone which signifies, “I am your friend, and will work to make your job easier. Really.”)
  • To clients (current and potential): “I do customer experience strategy.”
    (I will help turn your thoughtful but amorphous business idea into a something that can be built and measured.)

Boxes and Arrows, newly relaunched and looking for help in carrying on the flame, is featuring a series of articles from many people in the field of User Experience whom I deeply respect. And yet the conversation has turned into so much navel-gazing, as practitioners new and old wring their hands over what to call themselves, how to explain it to other people, and what to label the craft.

This is hardly groundbreaking conversation. Nor, as far as I can tell, does it serve any real purpose.

For evidence of that, let’s look back 10 years, and notice the quite similar way in which UXers were defining the field by trying to draw on other, supposedly better-understood, fields. Why has a decade brought so little progress?

Disagree? Stop any random person on the street and ask them what an “Interaction Designer” does. Now ask her what an “Architect” does. Why does the former draw blank stares, while the latter elicits a usually more or less “correct” answer and, in all likelihood, the name of an actual person who practice(d) that craft?

Quick, who was the architect who designed this?

OK, now who was the architect who designed this?

The confusion among non-practitioners (and people in the know, for that matter), springs not from the lack of a linguistic framework, or a proper delineation between roles. There have been no quiescent intervals during which disgruntled, misunderstood IAs and XDs have silently fomented. If there’s one thing we do particularly well, it is to discuss the nature of our craft. That, and lament the general public’s lack of understanding.

If there is an underlying cause to all of this – an obvious if largely unacknowledged motivating factor – it is our desire to feel understood by others. There is a sense of personal satisfaction inherent in the mere recognizability of one’s chosen profession. Even if “User Experience Architect” is not accorded the same level of respect as “heart surgeon” or “Nobel Peace Prize winner”, it would suffice to be met with the same nonchalant recognition as “plumber” or “cashier.”

But the simplest, and likely most effective way to accomplish this is not to argue incessantly over terminology. Instead, we need to do two things:

  • We need to concentrate our full efforts on doing great work. This includes, vitally, collaborating with other disciplines (from technology, business, and design), and moulding our practices to fit their needs every bit as much as those of the user.
  • We need celebrate great work, not out of hubris or self-congratulations, but out of a desire to set and live up to high standards.

The former implies that User Experience’s claim of “representing the user” is at best misguided, and at worst counter-productive. For if “we” represent “the user”, who does everyone else on the team represent?

The latter necessitates a measure of greatness that is more subtle than “most popular” or “most widely used.” An exquisite and superior customer experience is recognizably so even if the ultimate number of end-users is relatively small.

I’m intrigued and even delighted by some of the short list candidates for this year’s IxDA Awards, and even think some of them are going to be incredibly important as we consider the future of what it means to be a UX. But I’m a little disappointed that the big¬†winners¬†were so, well – popular.

When we begin to accomplish these goals, I believe the fortuitous side-effect will be a wider recognition of the basic mechanics of our craft – not least because we will have collaborated with so many more people on the periphery of our field, and word is bound to eventually leak out.

It would be lovely if we could manage to get ourselves thought of as ordinary, competent craftspeople, on the order of carpenters and potters.*


* “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”

– John Manyard Keynes