User Experience Design is a Fad

Author’s note: I actually wrote this article a few years back. As I began reading through it again in preparation to post it here on Medium, I had to laugh a little while recalling the current state of designer job titles I’ve seen lately—Product Designer seeming to be the most recent and most popular. I leave this here in it’s original state, but enjoy the irony of its now almost outdated nature. Enjoy!

Some say it’s jargon, some say it’s not even a real job. What exactly is this thing so many call “User Experience Design”? This may sound like an odd thing for a guy with User Experience Designer on his resumé to question. First, that title was given to me. Second, it’s semantic. It gets the job done. But recently (even more so as UX Design picks up traction within the general public) it’s become more of a roadblock than a suitable title.

User Experience is a term used to describe a broad set of skills aimed at affecting how a user perceives, uses and learns a product. If you go by Wikipedia, UX incorporates “aspects of psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, graphic design, industrial design and cognitive science. Whoa.

To take it a step further and use some terms a bit more familiar to us perhaps, we can take a look at Peter Boersma’s T-Model. Boersma places eight different disciplines under the umbrella of User Experience Design—Interaction Design, Information Architecture, Marketing & Communications, Usability Engineering, Visual Design, Information Design, Copywriting, and Computer Science. Head a splode. To Boersma’s credit he refers to his definition of User Experience Design as a t-model, because he recognizes no one person can be an expert at all eight of these disciplines. Therefore, a knowledge of each discipline is necessary, combined with an expertise in any one area, in order to be described as a User Experience Designer.

Boersma’s model begs the question then, why not just call yourself an Interaction Designer, or Information Architect, or Usability Engineer, and so-on? Ah, I think we’re getting to the crux of the matter. First and foremost, no one wants to be pigeon-holed. Well, okay, not everyone. There are amazing Interaction Designers, Information Architects, and Usability Engineers out there, and they boldly proclaim themselves as so—which they should. As more and more larger organizations begin seeing the value of these specialized sets, we’re beginning to see many experts in these fields rise to the top and appropriately carry such a specialized title. But what about the Web Designer? What does he do? He’s the guy that “can do it all”, right? But now everyone with a pirated copy of Creative Suite, or a basic knowledge of Wordpress, is a “web designer”, so how does he distinguish himself from them? He calls himself a User Experience Designer. He touts the many disciplines of User Experience on his resumé and takes on larger, more ambitious projects. All is good and well, until all the other “web designers” start carrying the same title, and we’re back at square-one.

The concept of User Experience Design was born out of good intentions, but is now such a widely accepted term that its value as a clear definition of what a designer does to affect good design is passing quickly. It’s a fad. User Experience Design is plainly, and simply, a set of tools and disciplines used to affect good design. There are no User Experience Designers—just good designers.

You Can’t Design an Experience

Ever been to Disney World? Ever been to Universal Studios? Ever noticed the difference between the two experiences while you’re waiting for a ride? I’m always amazed at the careful attention to every detail that Disney puts into their attractions, and even the most mundane of theme park elements, to make the whole experience feel more real than reality. I would say, hands-down, Disney World has a better experience than Universal Studios. Both fun in their own right, but Disney’s is better.

Dustin Curtis shares a pretty amazing interaction on a plane with “Mr. Q”, an 81-year old audio experience engineer for Disney, and designer of Disney’s ambient music system in 1968. Mr. Q explains to Dustin how Disney took something simple, like sound—which no one was complaining about mind you—and engineered a system of more than 15,000 speakers to not only ensure ambient music played within a range of only a few decibels throughout the park, but also seamlessly integrated theme music for one section of the park to another without the “user” ever noticing. This is what I love about Disney.

But have you ever been to Disney when it’s raining? When you’re sick? When there’s an annoying kid on line behind you? Not exactly the ideal experience, right? No matter how painstakingly Mr. Q and Disney worked to make the park the most enjoyable experience possible, there’s nothing they can do about certain aspects of a customer’s experience. They can design all they want (quite successfully mind you) for an experience, but never fully designing the experience itself.

We Design For The Experience

These unplanned set of factors are what Hassenzahl’s model of UX defines as the “situation”, which when combined with the “Intended Product Character” (how something was designed) directly affects the user’s experience.

Let’s apply this thinking of “situations” to something a little more tangible to us all, and something I’m a bit more passionate about—e-commerce.

When was the last time you bought something online? For most of us it probably wasn’t too long ago, and for many this is probably a regular occurrence. Ever noticed your “experience” differ from site to site based on factors not directly related to the design of the site? Perhaps the item you were looking for was out of stock. Maybe customer service was rude and unwilling to help you with a question about your order. Maybe even the product you received wasn’t quite what you expected and the return process was painful. Or maybe not? Maybe all of those things went smoothly and you completely ignored the fact that you had to enter your address twice even though your shipping address is the same as your billing. Or maybe you had to click through 4 pages worth of product before you found the item you wanted. I don’t think any designer would argue these are design flaws and can be improved, but in the end, you were able to find what you wanted, check out, and receive your product. Plain and simple. And as long as nothing else major happened, your overall experience was satisfactory.

So let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking that a job title is going to change the way people perceive the way we do our jobs, or distinguish us from “the wannabes”. It’s not. It only complicates things and in the end we’ll just keep arguing about what to call ourselves in the years to come as our discipline grows and the tools and skill sets associated with our profession grow as well. We’re Designers. Let’s be proud of that. Being good sets you apart, not the tools and resources by which you are good.

Side Note on Specialization

I mentioned earlier that within the broader field of User Experience there are many disciplines, and that as more and more organizations realize the need for a broader skill set in their designers that it makes sense for experts in these disciplines to take on specialized roles. Most projects a good designer takes on may not require full expertise in all areas of User Experience, but rather the know-how and discipline to apply those principles appropriately to his project. However, there comes a point in which the bandwidth of one designer as a generalist just doesn’t cut it. This is where specialization is key and an important mindset to consider for those of you out there trying to build a User Experience team.

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