Unicorns are Bullshit.

Designers, and the need to end isolating behaviors.


I’m going to start by borrowing the introduction to Ian Bogost’s article, “Gamification is Bullshit:”

In his short treatise On Bullshit, the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt gives us a useful theory of bullshit. We normally think of bullshit as a synonym—albeit a somewhat vulgar one—for lies or deceit. But Frankfurt argues that bullshit has nothing to do with truth.
Rather, bullshit is used to conceal, to impress or to coerce. Unlike liars, bullshitters have no use for the truth. All that matters to them is hiding their ignorance or bringing about their own benefit.

In the design world, the term “UX Unicorn” is often used to describe an individual who possesses marketable skills in each of these 5 areas: research, architecture, aesthetic, implementation, and presentation.

Unicorns are bullshit.

More specifically, the term “unicorn” is bullshit. Throughout my career, I have met many inspiring individuals (both female & male) who have fit this description.

Simply put, they exist. End of debate.

The individuals who fit this description have invested considerable effort and talent in broadening the definition of design as a profession. Choosing to invoke mythic language in our description of them only serves to isolate us from them and them from us.

Bogost continues:

Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word [sic] is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want…

So what do bullshitters want? What does anyone have to gain from proliferating the myth that these people are a myth?

Maybe the motivating factor here is so basic and subconscious that many don’t even realize the potential harm they are inflicting by choosing to employ it. Maybe this is about survival. Maybe that is backfiring.

We’ve all heard that most UX Designers did not initially train to become UX Designers. They either tangentially wandered into the role (as I did), or they made a calculated move into it as a second career.

As I have never had to do it, I can only imagine the terror and uncertainty that comes along with making the jump into a second career. This could be why UX seems to be such a fertile seedbed for impostor syndrome.

In their IA Summit 2014 presentation “’We’re Not Worthy’: Understanding & Escaping Impostor Syndrome,” Amy Silvers and Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci shared the following quote:

All this talk about being a unicorn I think contributes to a feeling of inadequacy for people who aren’t.

The term “unicorn” is detrimental to the entire spectrum of the UX community. So again, just stop using it.

The crux of this debate(?) always seems to always come back to designers and their ability “to code.” As an aside, I’ve always struggled with individuals who use “to code” as an as a euphemism as it seems that when speaking to them you might as well just say “magic.”

It undoubtedly sucks to be a Print Designer turned UX Designer and have some jackass (that would be me) tell you that they thought Photoshop, Omnigraffle, and Axure were on the decline as interactive design tools.

Agile, lean, and whatever the next process fad is are all part of a trend of quicker iterations in software development. To their credit UX Designers have been answering this trend with quicker iterations to user testing, but the true demand is for quicker iterations to deployment.

Any piece of the process that needs to be interpreted, annotated, spliced, or spec’ed creates drag on the process.

Reality Check: No process will ever be frictionless. Being considerate of one’s work is never the most efficient option available.

The truth is that UX Designers have a choice to make:

If we embrace coding practices, we can begin to move beyond passed our own isolating deliverables (that no one reads anyway).

If we choose to do nothing, our only hope is that the Adobe Updater can keep us relevant in a rapidly changing market.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t say with 100% certainty which is the more correct choice for where the market will be in 5 of 10 years. It is, however, a choice that all UX Designers need to make regardless of how many years they have been in the field.

I’ll close on this, shouldn’t your own plans for professional development be roughly equal to the advice you’d give a college sophomore thinking of entering the field?

…and if they aren’t, what does that say about you?