UX design’s UX design problem

Person 1: "UX!"; Person 2: "U wot?"

At the Service Design in Government conference in March, I found myself chatting to a nice person who wasn’t a service designer himself. I don’t remember the details, but I recall that he seemed reasonably senior and worked for a local authority. He was at the conference to learn more about this service design stuff he’d heard about.

I introduced myself as a user experience manager, because that’s my job title. This instigated an interesting conversation about what user experience is.

He told me his department was trying to hire a user experience designer for a particular project. He said he’d persuaded them that they shouldn’t advertise for a user experience designer, and that they’d be better off looking for an interaction designer.

I asked why. He said: If you hire a user experience designer you’ll just get someone who wants to design the interface, whereas an interaction designer would be more likely to look at the end-to-end problem.

It seemed as if he and I had opposite understandings of the meanings of user experience and interaction design.

Not that good interaction designers don’t have an end-to-end understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. But if I were asked to delineate a distinction between user experience and interaction design, I’d have have said that user experience is the slightly broader field.

User experience can be aimed at solving problems across channels and mediums, digital or otherwise. An interaction designer is ultimately focused on… well, designing an interaction. Which will normally be through some kind of interface.

That’s not to say it’s a different level of importance. Interaction design is highly important and aimed at solving sophisticated problems. But user experience is specifically designed to help us see users’ needs beyond the interface.

Our communication failure

This particular interaction at the conference underlined to me that user experience itself has a user experience problem. I’m not exactly the first to point it out, but it remains a deep irony that our field is so mysterious to so many.

While there are nuances and complexities in some of these semantic distinctions, this confusion is ultimately a communication failure on the part of the user experience community.

I explored some of these problems in a previous post about the same conference, where I grappled with the supposed differences between service design and user experience. In my view, these differences are grossly exaggerated by many.

Evolution of our terminology

These conversations about our own terminology are nothing new. While there’s a tendency to think of user experience or service design as relatively new practices, in truth people have been doing work like this for decades — centuries, even. They’ve just been called different things.

  • Scientific management
  • Ergonomics
  • Human factors
  • Lean manufacturing
  • Human–computer interaction
  • User-centred design
  • Human-centred design
  • User experience
  • Service design
  • …what next?

Scientific management and its predecessors can be traced back to the 1880s. But in the same way that Adam Smith didn’t invent economics because you can see Aristotle and Plato grappling with the same questions, people have surely been considering what we now call user experience problems throughout history.

All this is before we take into consideration related but different disciplines: information architecture, content design, graphic design, visual design, interaction design, user interface design, customer experience, market research.

All of these have different meanings — sometimes subtly different, sometimes vastly so. But they all share common elements. Even more confusingly, they can all be done in ways that do not adhere to human-centred design principles.

No wonder our colleagues are confused.

Distinguishing ourselves from interface designers

User experience was created as a phrase in the 1990s by Don Norman. He did so specifically to differentiate it from the narrower field of user interface design. But over time, use of the phrase evolved so that it once again became almost indistinguishable from user interface design. Cue countless “UX v UI” Medium articles.

Service design was, in a way, a further attempt to make the distinction clearer. But it too is falling prey to the same problem.

Job titles like “service/UI designer” are increasingly being seen in the wild.

Two problematic words

So how do we break this cycle?

I think there are two key problems with the words we use to describe our work.

Firstly, the word user. Debates around this particular word tend to centre around whether it’s somehow disrespectful to deploy the word user. Gerry McGovern said:

I have always disliked the word ‘user’. What do drugs and the Web have in common? Traffic, Users and Hits.

One thing is for sure. The word user is heavily intertwined with IT and computers. It undeniably conjures up the image of a person prodding at buttons on a computer.

For as long as we use the word user, we will struggle to convey the importance of understanding people’s more fundamental needs and behaviours, beyond their interaction with the screen.

The second problem is the word design. Like it or not, when you say design to most people, they are thinking about how something looks. At a push, they’re thinking about how it feels.

They’re thinking of logos, chairs and posters. They’re thinking of colours, materials and fonts.

Unfortunate connotations

Worse still, the word “designer” has an unfortunate connotation with luxury. Designer handbags. Designer watches. Designer shoes.

This is not helped by the many people who invoke the ghost of Steve Jobs at any given opportunity to explain design through the medium of cliche.

Most designers know that most design isn’t an overpriced shiny Apple product. They know that the best design is about getting the basics right. They know that everything is designed (intentionally or not).

But to most people, something designed is something luxurious. It is seen as an extra; an unnecessary add-on; a frivolity. This means that when times get tough, design is often the first thing to be questioned, and the first thing to be cut.

We know the consequences of this can be disastrous — more so for essential services than luxury ones. This is a cruel irony given the unfortunate perceptions of design as a luxury activity.

Designing out design

We won’t change perceptions by repeatedly telling people that their understanding of design is wrong. A user-centred approach would be to accept most people’s understanding of design. This means we must design the word design out of our vocabulary.

This is another reason why I have started talking about human-centred approaches.

I think this phrase has a number of benefits. It is more difficult to twist these words to mean merely “look and feel”. Dropping the word user helps us move away from IT connotations. Losing the word design helps us avoid the luxury connotations.

Most importantly, I think it’s important to convey that understanding the people using your product or service is not just the preserve of designers.

You can be a human-centred developer, a human-centred product owner, a human-centred business analyst or a human-centred project manager. Whatever your role is, if you want to be good at it, you can choose to be human-centred.

This work is not the preserve of designers. Design is a job, but being a human-centred not just a job. It’s an approach. It’s a mindset. It’s something we should all be doing. So let’s all be doing it.

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