A few days ago, I watched a webinar hosted by a design company on the basics of user experience during my lunch break. As a user experience designer, I am always curious about how other designers frame the definition of UX. It is a term that describes the process of designing, organizing, testing, and analyzing interfaces to make them better for users. However, recently the term has become subject to a wide variety of interpretations. While I let my freshly microwaved pot pie cool off, I went into observer mode and sipped some virtual tea in the corner of the webinar classroom.
The talk began with a breakdown of basic UX terminology and then stated that UX design is all about putting on your best customer hat to predict how users feel when they interact with your app or website.
I spat out my virtual tea and shouted “you are not your user!” in the direction of my muted laptop.
It is good practice to empathize with your user, but without any research to support your speculations, your designs are just that: speculation. Research is key to the art of UX, which one might argue is less of an art and mostly a science. It’s not a practice of whimsy and feelings, but rather a discipline that requires skill and dedication to process.
You can analyze app usability, sketch out wireframes, and test the functionality of visual prototypes without user research, but how do you know your user will enjoy their experience if you don’t really know your user?
Don’t skip the research phase
I’ve heard many business owners and developers explain how they know everything they need to know about their users. They come looking for UX help and then ask to skip the research phase. They always want to jump to the visual designs. They think their app just needs a cleaner user interface or a cooler on-boarding screen, but when I dig in, I find workflow errors so massive that no one should tolerate them. Putting a sleek UI (user interface) on a dysfunctional application is like putting lipstick on a pig. Actually, it is worse, because pigs are pretty cute.
Without proper user research, UX designers don’t have the data they need to do their job well. Research isn’t asking a set of biased questions to fit your business motivations, such as inviting 5 of your best friends to tell you how much they love your mobile app. It isn’t looking at your Google Analytics reports and assuming your bounce rate is high because of your pop-up windows and not your confusing navigation system. Research shouldn’t be skipped because you’ve been in the industry for a long time or even in the case that you quit your day job to build an app to solve a problem for people just like you. You are never your user and you don’t really know what they want — unless you research them.
“Research that’s not impartial…. isn’t trustworthy. And if it isn’t trustworthy, the data gained is not truly actionable.”
— Darren Hood, Senior UX Designer/UX Evangelist
UX is becoming a knock-off of itself
I’m not surprised that people are throwing the term around so loosely, but I am leery of how designers are selling UX to their clients, and especially how they are teaching it to other designers. It is disheartening to see designers come along promising UX expertise and offering their services on a faster timeline and for a cheaper rate to clients who don’t know better — making talented UX designers seem overpriced and slow. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people within the UX industry is about the surge of designers who claim to know UX when what they do is little more than graphic design for websites. These designers may be talented visual designers, but they don’t have the skill set and understanding to making those designs work for their users.
Chris Kiess laid it out in his recent article “The McDonaldization of UX.” UX is being reduced to a step in the corporate assembly line. Designers are sitting at their desks creating wireframes and mockups for developers on a tight turnaround. “Any thinking or proposal that might remotely affect their timeline was quickly quashed,” Kiess says about his corporate experience. There is no time for thinking outside of the box, which is how many UX designers are able to create truly innovative solutions that directly affect the success of products and businesses. There aren’t cookie cutter solutions for engaging users across the spectrum of interfaces. In the design agency world, it has become commonplace to tell clients that you implement UX strategies only to gloss over them entirely. UX is now designing solutions for users who no one is bothering to research.
Research is the “secret sauce” of UX
User research is being tossed out the window in a hasty pursuit to package UX in a way that companies prefer it — quick and cheap. It’s the drive to rally behind a buzzword and the vanity of appearing cutting-edge that is undercutting a profession with proven value. We are going full circle, back to a time when bad user experience ruled the internet.
The practice and science of UX design was born from the all too common frustration businesses felt after building expensive software only to discover that users didn’t like it. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t work anymore. If you research your users, design for your users, test with your users, and then build for your users — there is a much better chance they’ll show up and stick around.
We all know that UX is in vogue and everyone wants a piece of it. Find a way to sell CBD infused UX design and you’ll be a billionaire. But try not to forget that the U stands for user and don’t take the user out of UX.