UX — short for user experience design — is an aspirational term. As designers, we should aspire to craft products that affect a positive experience for our users. UX is a relatively new term, one borne of an evolution from earlier phrases that roll off the tongue a little less easily, idioms like user centered or human centered design.
What sets UX apart from its predecessors, however, is that graphic designers — particularly those who design for the web or software products — did not previously refer to themselves as web and human centered designers. Rather, the terms ‘web’ or ‘user interface’ (UI) were enough to descriptively and appropriately suffice. Today, however, you would be hard pressed to find a web or UI designer who does not self identify as one who works in ‘UI/UX.’
We’ve seen this happen time and again, a term first becomes trendy, then part of industry lexicon and, before you know it, everyone has updated their portfolios and LinkedIn profiles to include it. The issue I have with UX, however, is that its present day use threatens to undermine the meaning of human centered design, a methodology that insists upon the employment of a particular process.
Simply put, I do not want UX to become forever synonymous with UI; yet another way to communicate that you’re in the business of user interface design for the web or software products. If UX is the latest colloquial evolution used to impart a human centered approach to design, as designers, we must insist that such a process is in place. Implicit in the suggestion that our approach to design is user centered is the assertion that we have validated the user experience of a product through research, synthesis, user testing and iterative prototyping.
Without a process in place by which to validate design decisions and inform further design direction through user testing and subsequent iteration, a designer is really only doing their best guesswork. Further, once this guesswork is published, the designer can only be reactive in modifying their effort as needed via submitted feedback from users or openly published critique. This manner of reactive adaptation is neither a process, nor does it justify the designation, user experience design.
The solution, I believe, is simple: the more designers who are interested in crafting user experiences familiarize themselves with, and begin adhering to, a truly user centered process in their work, the more meaning we will subsequently reinvest in the term, UX. And there are no shortage of freely available resources to assist designers in educating themselves in this arena. Much has been published and shared on varying approaches to, and thinking around, these processes:
- frog, a global product strategy and design firm, has a number of tools that facilitate their design process, a wealth of insightful articles and thinking on their Design Mind website and an open-source, Collective Action Toolkit whose aim is to “standardize and simplify the language around design thinking.”
- Stanford’s d.school shares quite a lot around design thinking on their blog, as well as in a downloadable mini-guide to the design process the students of their program are trained in.
- And IDEO, a global design and consulting firm and — full disclosure — my employer, has authored numerous books on design thinking and our design process, a Human-Centered Design Toolkit for social enterprises and NGOs, a Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit and a Design Thinking Blog, authored by IDEO’s Tim Brown.
As designers, we must be deliberate in how we talk about the work that we do. And, in designing user experiences, we should adhere to processes that ensure we’ve arrived at an empathy for our user via an understanding of their experience; one that best equips us to design the most appropriate solution for the real world challenges our users face.
Through the sharing of our thinking and ideas, we can work as a community of minds to craft the best experiences we’re able — those that better the lives of all our users — and, in turn, become the most expert and capable UX designers we know ourselves to be.