Overlaps between user experience and other disciplines — a benefit, not a problem

A large teal block overlapping with five differently coloured stripes

Have you ever been told that by doing human-centred work you’re stepping on someone else’s toes?

I have heard it a number of times. More and more people are exploring the apparent overlaps between human-centred approaches and other disciplines.

Overlapping responsibilities can be a big problem if you’re perceived to be encroaching on someone else’s territory. But looking closer at the comparisons between user experience and other disciplines, I’ve noticed something interesting that suggests overlaps are not a weakness of human-centred approaches, but a strength.

User experience and…

First, let’s explore some comparisons between user experience and other disciplines.

Product management

Nielsen Norman Group’s Kara Pernice and Raluca Budiu have recently conducted a study exploring attitudes around the overlap between user experience and product management.

They found that product managers and user experience practitioners have differing views on who should be responsible for things like content, information architecture, communicating design and customer knowledge, and even conducting user research.

44% of product managers thought they should be responsible for discoveries, in comparison to 19% who thought that user experience practitioners should be responsible. Even more surprisingly, only 46% of product managers thought that user experience people should be responsible for that most UX of UX tasks, usability testing!

Tellingly, the areas where product managers and user experience people agreed that UX should be responsible for are all in the area of look and feel, or user interface design. This suggests an issue around how others misunderstand user experience. This is a long-standing problem with how user experience practitioners communicate the purpose of their role.

Product ownership

This whole situation isn’t helped by a parallel confusion around the distinction between a product manager and a product owner. The difference between those roles is quite subtle, and largely depends on what methodology you are following.

I certainly have direct experience of being told that by following user-centred approaches to things like prioritising problems and features, I was intruding on the role of a product owner. Ensuring that a product is informed by user needs is totally fundamental to what user experience is. But product managers are ultimately responsible for the direction of the product.

Business analysis

I recently attended an interesting webinar from User Vision hosted by Chris Rourke and Sarah Williams, exploring the overlaps and differences between user experience and business analysis.

Both disciplines are largely about helping define requirements. Business analysis looks at this question from the business’s point of view. User experience practitioners look at it from the end user’s point of view.

The overlap comes when good business analysts are thinking about users as well as the business, and similarly when user experience people are considering business constraints and requirements as well as end users.

I was struck by a diagram that shows how a service is made up of:

  • experiences
  • interactions
  • touchpoints
  • procedures
  • systems

Traditionally, business analysts have looked at building a service from the inside-out. They began first with systems, and went as far as considering touchpoints. But they didn’t always consider interactions and experiences.

User experience practitioners look at the same list of things things, but coming from the opposite direction. So they begin first with experiences, interactions then touchpoints.

The overlap comes when good business analysts consider experiences as part of their thinking, and when UXers consider systems as part of theirs.

Market research

Similarly, there are debates about the similarities and differences between user research and market research. As with user experience and business analysis, there are many similarities between the two disciplines, but traditionally they are looking from two different perspectives.

Market researchers have historically focused on the purchase decision, rather than the use of the product itself. Their work takes in a wide range of aspects like product–market fit, understanding a value proposition, and figuring out what types of users might purchase a product.

Market researchers haven’t always looked at things like the pain points of users, how people might use the product, and how to evolve a product based on user-centred insights.

As with the other disciplines above, good market researchers do often think about these things. But when that doesn’t happen, it’s a user-centred practitioner’s job to make sure it does happen.

…and other disciplines

I’ve written extensively about the exaggerated differences, and significant overlap, between user experience and service design. Similar things have been said by Kim Salazar about customer experience.

There are also significant natural overlaps with content design, as Lizzie Bruce has noted. I have also written about my experience of hiring content designers as a way of bringing user-centred skills into a team.

There are also well-documented overlaps with information architecture, as documented by Abby Covert for starters.

These overlaps are a benefit, not a problem

If we look again at Nielsen Norman Group’s research into overlaps between user experience and product management, it reveals something interesting. Product managers feel that their role overlaps mostly with marketing, user experience, and product owners.

Meanwhile, user experience practitioners feel overlaps with almost every role. This gives us a clue as to what’s really going on.

In fact, human-centred practitioners should overlap with almost every role. This is because almost every role in an organisation has an impact on people.

When those jobs are done well, they take human-centred thinking into consideration. Unfortunately, human-centred approaches to these roles is still rare in many organisations. This is where human-centred practitioners come in.

We’re here to help everyone become more human-centred

Perhaps the accusations of stepping on people’s toes are mainly coming from those who don’t want to take a human-centred approach to their work. But for those who do want their work to improve people’s lives, human-centred practitioners are here to help.

Call it user experience, customer experience, service design, or whatever you like. These human-centred practitioners exist to help everyone in an organisation become more human-centred.

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