Why UX Just Got A Lot Harder

Where to go in an increasingly mature world of UX

It’s nearly ten years ago, since I joined a motley crew of academics, recruiters and designers, to tackle the thorny question of defining the core competencies for User Experience (UX). Then, the low barriers to entry in that field were a concern to many and just as now anyone who calls himself or herself a UX designer or researcher can practice. Today that is still the case but, importantly the growth of UX as an area of work has increased exponentially.

Arguably, fast career growth started around 2007. Leading UX to no longer be obscure and unloved as it was back in the day of Usability Engineering (UE). Since 2007 it is hard to find, let alone imagine any organisation, that doesn’t see the need to deliver accessible, usable, rewarding and engaging products and services. That shift has been in turn spurred by the increase in quality of consumer products and services and a technological shift from point and click to touch. People will pay for highly usable stuff whereas in the past they might take the cheaper challenging option.

The growth of UX is great and is a reason we are glued to our phones and tablets all the time. Principles laid down the the pioneering days of HCI are now not in just in dusty text books but are embedded in ubiquitous technology. That progress is also why we have UX Baristas and Songwriters nowadays. The exponentional growth of the field means that the low barriers to entry are perhaps even more problematic than in the past.

A lot of time was invested in defining competencies and methods in the early days of UX, but lets be honest the speed of commercial adoption outstripped what was then a primarily academic discipline. That disconnect between everyday practice and the scientific traditions of HCI and ergonomics should be a worry to all of us, but usually its academics who get the stick for being too academic (sic) while less scrupulous people in the industry use the veil of pseudo science to bag clients and gain the kudos of heroes like Ehn and Milford: that few would name drop today.

The fear that seasoned professionals have, that UX has become dumbed-down and its substantive value undermined is well-founded. Unfortunately the train has left the station – UX has gone large. This shift became very clear to me working with the new generation of designers, many of whom have never been to design school, but importantly have grown up with touchscreens, social media and premium grade electronics and game consuls.

Guess what? the new generation has imbibed the principles of good design and HCI from the products and services they use on a day to day basis so that its second nature. Today, we live in a world of democratized design that exists outside of the traditional education system and is seen in everything from the start up scene to some of today’s great entrepreuneurs. And guess what our traditional deliverables like wireframes can be done by anyone: Good design thinking can’t.We can either go with the flow or try to stop it by developing professional standards.

The good news is that we live in a world of a better experienced, and less elitist profession and with tools that are becoming easier and easier to use. In particular, two pillars of UCD, firstly the visualisation of requirements to make them understandable for all and secondly, the embodying of requirements into early prototypes is now becoming cheaper, easier and more accepted in the business world. Easier design tools removes barriers and must be good for the profession and the growing number of practitioners.

The experience of democratized design, has convinced me that, yes anyone can do UX. Just like anyone can make a film, soundtrack or write a book nowadays. Not everyone can make a best seller but the basic building blocks are there. It’s not like you need to design basic UI elements like radio buttons as we did in the old days. Anecdotally, it’s where common ui elements don’t work and/or more complex UX problems arise is where democratised design falls down and the experts are called in.

Simply looking at how popular and successful instances of UX design can be improved is arguably Where the Action is nowadays to paraphrase Paul Dourish. There’s hardly any innovation in convential ui now but rather just more of it and more highly optimised versions at that. In that sense UX just got harder than ever before like that difficult second album Rosebud Fullstop

Of course doing something at all, like design or driving and doing something brilliantly is a different thing, but I stand by my claim that the maturity of technology has and must shift UX as a profession — and generally that is opening it up from a small band of experts to well just about everyone. The technological shifts we are witnessing now do not just affect the domain but the tools of the trade including access to incredibly easy to use design rendering and prototyping tools and new research methods. We need to recognise that and up our game rather than closing the open door on democratised design.

Naturally, the discipline will evolve and become even more tightly coupled to data including analytics and market research. At the same time there are newer competing design and marketing fields vying for the attention of businesses and the media including CX, MRX and Service Design. I believe none of these constituent fields will win out on their own and instead we need to bit of repositioning as a profession that has already shifted from usability to experience. If any of those defining professional terms have become too loaded and restrictive, then maybe we need a new discipline?

Whither UX? I believe that the term will become increasingly meaningless as more people practice and there is less genuinely principled UX work done. Rather than decline, I think UX needs to evolve to a cross-disciplinary profession built on Design + Science. To some extent UX needs to distance itself from the current amorphous area of work merely through rebranding. Design Science makes for a strong profession that is based on clear principles and methods with a link to the great traditions of Participatory Design and HCI but with an eye to the future of optimisation and data-drived design.

What are the tangible implications of the maturation of UX and the emergence of Design Science? A stronger profession would benefit from the following:

  1. Back to basics on the empirical basis of design through research. Unlike our predecessors though, we have a broader set of inputs and tools than just design research.
  2. Continuous evolution of professional standards including core competencies and role descriptions that link back to capability initiatives such as SFIA and drive excellence.
  3. Repositioning of deliverables from manifestation of requirements to findings of ‘design experiments’ ranging from ‘Critical Design’ to prototypes at differing levels of fidelity.
  4. Recognition of the craft element of our discipline; including building awareness of nuance, the craft of making and refining atomic level experience elements.
  5. Support for the maturation of the domain, including ui elements that have reached the level of archetype, patterns and methods and that can be added to the body of knowledge and then used freely outside of the profession — so that we can focus on innovation.

John Knight, Design Scientist, 2015

John Knight

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