Defining UX Design

An industry audit on academic and professional institutions

What do you do?

“I’m studying graphic design.” “I do front-end web design.” “I design websites and apps and… that kind of stuff.” When friends or family ask me what I’m studying, these are a few of my common responses. While I do all these things (and more), the truth is that I’m studying Design and pursuing a concentration in Experience Design.

Not only is this line a mouthful, but it’s also relatively meaningless to anyone outside the design or tech community.

Like most of my peers, I’m adamant about the importance of user experience design guiding emergent technologies during the information age. I believe successful UX will be key in the implementation and public adoption of 21st-century technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and autonomous machinery. I’m a sucker for a good user onboarding flow. The list could go on, but it just sounds like a vague string of buzzwords or outright nonsense to everyday, suburban Gen X-ers. These people are the very fabric of our country and therefore, in large part, the people we should be designing for. To design for likeminded millennial technocrats is a lazy privilege; and easy nut to crack to offers back validation but does little to solve real problems. Good user experience should be as inclusive as possible, and that means mutual respect and understanding even if only at a rudimentary level.

But how can the practice be explained to outsiders without being reductive, vague or pretentious? What kind of key traits or responsibilities are inherent to the practice of experience design? How can one summarize experience design in a way that resonates with their 10-year old cousin or their 70-year old grandmother?

My parent’s perception of UX

Maybe one of the reasons explaining UX design seems so difficult is because the discipline itself is still staking out its territory. The digital design landscape is full of verticals that directly impact user experience — graphic design, UI design, copywriting, and human-computer interaction to name just a few. How UX design incorporates and/or ultimately differentiates itself from these specialties will be key in developing definition and identity for the discipline.

This figuring of the discipline is an organic, fluid, and ongoing process that involves a wide spectrum of voices and perspectives. UX design is still a developing practice, but why not consider the state of academic and professional UX to see how we got here?

If it’s too soon to definitively say what experience design is, then maybe we can discern where it’s heading.

Teaching UX

Let’s start with Savannah College of Art and Design, the “university for creative careers” that made headlines when it rolled out a UX degree program in partnership with Google last year. Between their work with Google, a Hewlett Packard team up, and events on campus, SCAD seems eager to embrace industry collaboration. Combine these offerings with the school’s example curriculum, and it seems like university could be worthy of its trailblazer status.

Undergrads at SCAD majoring in UX Design are required to take many of the touchstone fundamental design courses: drawing, color theory, art history, graphic design, typography, etc. Draw a bowl of fruit before you sketch out the next killer app. Walk before you run. Wax on, wax off. What seems most promising about the curriculum, however, is its interdisciplinary offerings. Students are required to take courses like Intro to Anthropology, Algorithm Design and Analysis, Information Architecture, and Human/Computer Interaction. These offerings suggests that an experience designer’s skillset far exceeds traditional design education, if not in depth then in breadth. SCAD presents UX design as truly holistic, focusing equally on basic design principles and a real understanding of the end-user as a human being.

Let’s compare this perspective to my own school, Northeastern University, which has shrinking admission rates, offers over 150 majors across eight colleges, and boasts a dedication to “experiential learning”. Experience Design is offered as one of three Design concentrations here, with not a single required course or suggested elective outside the College of Arts, Media and Design. The concentration is generally treated as a traditional design program with increased focus on qualitative research and problem-solving models.

There are plenty of reasons Northeastern and similar schools lack creativity in their course curriculum. While I’m inclined to believe it’s attributable to a fundamental misunderstanding of experience design at the institutional level, it could very well be a bureaucratic restraint or a result of the university’s perspective on the discipline. What’s important, though, is that experience design is an inherently interdisciplinary practice. An understanding of the visual arts and design methodology is vital to success as a user experience designer, but UX will be constrained to those vectors if educators don’t seize the opportunity for cross-departmental curricula and collaborative projects. Requiring basic psychology, anthropology, or statistics courses would promote a more well-rounded understanding of user behavior without relying on guesswork and uninformed A/B tests. Arranged consulting work with the many startups and clubs on campus would offer a perfect testing ground for direct application of these concepts, which is currently scarce.

My school’s perception of UX

This gap between traditional schooling and desired skillsets has quickly been occupied by fast-track tech bootcamps such as General Assembly and Startup Institute, as well as a slew of online video-based resources like Udemy or Lynda. While new-school options like these act as a great launchpad for students eager to enter the industry, their curriculums are inherently compacted. This means glossing over fundamental design thinking methodology and important auxiliary topics like typography and basic graphic design. Students are taught current tools of the trade (user research, wireframing, prototyping) but such a curriculum can’t possibly supply the varied contexts and abstract problem-solving skills necessary for long-term professional growth and development.

Of the few liberal arts colleges to offer UX Design as a major, it seems like most are playing it safe and treating the discipline as a close sibling to more traditional visual arts. Universities seem well aware of UX as a growing professional field, but are academically figuring it as a digital design practice with some added focus on programming, futurology, and research. Pupils are taught how to practice visual design and then instructed how to do so through the lens of user empathy. The concepts of design thinking and human understanding are not treated with the same weight and never taught synchronously. Although many institutions define experience design as a field that can transform all aspects of life, curriculums like Northeastern’s propagate a much less ambitious scope. Independent accelerated courses like General Assembly are propagating trends and focused on populating the industry, but doing little to further the discipline or question the status quo.

If academia can’t reach a consensus on what UX Design is or how to teach it, then who’s steering the ship?

Practicing UX

When considering the professional landscape for UX Design, I tend to divide the practice into two camps. The first being Don Norman, Jakob Nielsen, and the ilk who have been involved in experience design for decades with a focus on scientific method, human-computer interaction, and Usability with a capital U. This breed of experience designer long predates the age of ubiquitous computer literacy; they were the ones studying, testing, and declaring benchmarks for early computer interactions. While not a particularly sexy career, these are the people who laid the foundation for experience design as a discipline and continue to foster it with books, extensive reports, and best practices.

Established research and consulting groups like the Nielsen Norman Group tend to focus on key metrics and scientific processes to determine what works and what doesn’t. We’re talking about definitive 500-page reports conducted with international users, analyzed with eye-tracking software. This kind of experience design eventually informs the practice at large and guides trends within the discipline, but the scale and methodology can’t be repeated by an independent freelancer or your local startup.

This brings me to the second class of experience designer: the Post-it Note crazed brainchild of Silicon Valley. These are the designers conducting face-to-face interviews and talking to real users to solve specific problems. Many companies with complicated information architecture or a true dedication to customer satisfaction may have in-house UX designers, however the real movers and shakers are UX design firms and think tanks that push the envelope on processes and invent new methodology.

Experience Design firms are unique in the broader design landscape, due in part to their sheer amount of time dedicated to synthesizing and solving challenges for a wide range of clients. These designers are solving problems for farmers markets, airports, financial investment banks, and everything in-between. That means approaching each project with a deeply analytical perspective and a flexible toolkit. By sharing their methodology and findings, small studios like Fresh Tilled Soil and Fuzzy Math embrace the open-ended nature of UX design while contributing to the natural growth of the discipline.

The industry’s perception of UX

Perhaps the greatest strides in defining experience design comes from tech behemoths like Google and Facebook. These corporations have the clout and capital to build huge teams that tackle incredibly complex design problems, backed in part by the the rapid iteration their access to big data facilitates. As such, their methodologies are widely adopted throughout the industry and have a huge impact on how UX design is practiced at large. In the absence of leading academic institutions, many would point to digital product juggernauts like these as the shapers of the discipline.

While it’s important to have voices of authority, this creates a problematic positive feedback loop when it comes to tech bootcamps emulating their big brothers in California. Widespread or unquestioning emulation of any one vision could risk the potential of the discipline as a whole. It’s critical that the fluidity of experience design is not only preserved but embraced; that discourses are open and ongoing, not solely formed by homogenous subcommittees and forces of power within the industry.

Early human-computer interaction designers borrowed knowledge and methodology from any number of applicable disciplines, drawing analogies wherever possible to form appropriate inquiries and build solutions for new problems. It’s the responsibility of the modern experience designer to maintain that same level of creativity and integrity; to defy definition in favor of collaboration and flexible problem-solving capabilities.

So what do I do?

I study graphic design. I do front-end web design. I design websites and apps and books and posters and games and anything else I possibly can. I push myself to acknowledge everything as a learning experience and to cherish it as an opportunity to further my mental perspective and physical capabilities.

Experience design currently seems to evade a concise and universally accepted definition. And, brace yourself, that might be perfectly alright.

However, if a quorum is to be reached on the definition of user experience design, it falls upon us, the practitioners of the discipline, to do so. Regardless of the interpretations of universities and Fortune 500 companies, we are the ones embodying and defining the discipline through our thoughts, discourses, and actions.

We must bolster the design communities that already exist. We must share our struggles and our findings. We must tear down divisions where appropriate. We must champion our contributions when credit is deserved. We must continue to learn, innovate, and grow with technology. Where tools, methods or protocol don’t exist, we must invent them.

As designers, we must remain vigilantly creative and constantly prepared to solve problems of any scale. As citizens, we must remain empathetic and optimistic.

Our discipline must always aspire to positively impact others in whatever way possible.

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