Is UX really still an “emerging” discipline?

Apparently User Experience (UX) is still very hard for car companies. Wards Auto, in covering their UX conference last October, wrote “Designing for the user experience is a still-emerging concept automakers continue to wrestle with — and it appears it’s only going to get tougher.”


This is concerning. For whom is this still-emerging? Why is it getting harder? And where have automakers been this whole time as UX practitioners find themselves in the throes of other companies’ simultaneous fetishization of and impatience for the practice? Businesses who have heard of UX demand the hiring of more practitioners (usually under one of several title variations) then ask, What does it do for the bottom line? How fast can you “do” it? If their client is displeased with something, it’s the first budget item to get cut. That’s the usual game.

Enough is enough. UX is not emerging. It has evolved, yes, and is transforming all the time, but it is hardly emerging. At this point it is actually suffering from a professionalization problem.

Mike Monteiro recently wrote a reeling critique of his generation’s failure as designers and how to lift up those who are coming up next. He calls for professionalization and outlines what that entails, although it’s positioned as a catharsis rather than a road map. He discusses two major pieces of professionalization, education and licensure, but we need to also include two other important pieces: industry advocacy and self-governance.

This missing pieces influence the first two, and answer our Wards Auto mystery as to how on earth an entire industry can be that (seemingly) dumb about not knowing to put their “users” first. If they think UX is an emerging industry, we have to take the blame for that one.

The industry advocacy and self-governance piece is about how a profession organizes and presents itself to other industries, its regulating bodies, and each other. Let’s look at a familiar profession: to be a doctor, one must undergo very rigorous education and preparation, then sit for a qualifying final exam, and obtain licensure from their state or country. In the United States, a doctor may then also join the American Medical Association and/or their state’s medical association, not to mention their respective specialty organization, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

These organizations lobby government (who regulate them and license them), work with medical schools, and also monitor and influence their industry’s evolution and transformation (e.g. putting out original research, hosting conferences, and organizing legally required professional development). They also serve as points of contact with their industry’s counterparts abroad, again to stay in touch about the overall evolution and transformation of the field elsewhere.

Right now, “tech” suffers without professionalization. In August 2016 Anil Dash pointed out the absurdity of calling it “the technology industry” in current times. It is no longer literally an industry making technological tools like processors or microchips; trying to make sense of and regulate companies that produce everything from mayo to television shows in the same way is impossible. Bootcamps are popping up to solve this pipeline problem by churning out job-ready professionals before you can finish reading the syllabi set for semester one of your Human Factors degree (UX has existed for several decades as part of or under the guise of art-school style design, Human-Computer Interaction, and Usability; while it is now called UX directly it still could live in any of several places depending on the school). And while there are such things as industry organizations, they serve specific niches such as Interaction Design (which is not UX… the job titles will have to wait for another piece). There are plenty of professional publications that spend time examining the evolution of the industry and do a balanced job of not getting too geographically specific, but they do not come with the backing, weight, and consensus of a broadly encompassing organization like the American Medical Association and its Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In other words, the pieces are all there and taking shape, but it feels dysfunctional and confusing because they are taking shape independently of each other, not in service to a unifying goal of professionalization. It’s difficult: part of why the tech industry has become what it is (a world where mayonnaise and tv shows are approached from the same framework) has to do with the fact of traversing the physical and online worlds. Medicine certainly has a problem translating its licensing models in 2018 when the user experience involves online as well as physical spaces.

There are several reasons to resist professionalization, one being that it puts barriers to entry in place. Guess what: there is already a barrier in place to determine a good quality UX practitioner from a bad one. It’s the hiring process, and it’s terrible because all the power belongs to the hiring business. I would much prefer to share that power, and have the backing of an organization. I would much prefer to be part of that organization’s effort to build an advocacy relationship with other industries, like the world of Wards Auto, so that instead of them wholly unaware in 2017 that UX is in fact not emerging but quite arrived (and also something they should invest in), they are creating more jobs and opportunities for UX practitioners to apply their skills and talent in context.