The Myth of UX Design
What ”User Experience” Really Means
User Experience design is not a real thing.
Okay, let’s back up. That’s obviously not true. Of course UX design is real. But what people (and brands) actually mean when they talk about UX design has become increasingly muddled, and that’s a bad thing. It’s bad for designers, and it’s bad for brands.
Let’s be clear about one thing: All design is UX design. In some ways, there is something inherently problematic about separating “UX design” from other subsects of the design industry, because doing so implies that everything else is somehow lesser. It reduces graphic design to simple visual art. And design by definition is not visual art. All design, at its core, is about creating experiences that solve problems and get results.
| Brands are stories, and designers are storytellers.
We’ve all heard this, or some variation of it. But that’s because it’s true. A brand is only as good as its story. Period. And every employee — from the CEO to the sales force to the marketing team — is instrumental in shaping that story. Why, then, are graphic designers often thought of as simply tools for making something look nice?
Throughout my career, I’ve designed for a lot of different types of brands, from behemoth international corporations to very small, scrappy startups. In working across the spectrum, I’ve noticed a common problem when it comes to the way many companies think about branding and design: there has often never been any real internal conversation about what “design” means for the brand. This isn’t about semantics; it’s about being smart. If you think of your brand design just in terms of what “looks nice,” then you will ultimately fail at selling the brand.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked to create a piece of marketing collateral — perhaps an eBook, a case study, or even some internal sales document — and been told, “let’s keep it simple. The design of this isn’t as important as the words.” There are a couple things wrong with this line of thinking. Firstly, every asset, internal or external, that’s created for a company is a representation of the brand itself (whether we like it or not) and should therefore be considered an opportunity for an exercise in brand strategy. And secondly, it’s not the words that matter; it’s the message. Just as any good copywriter will tell you that the key to good copy is almost always less copy (that is, less copy that still tells the right story in the right way), any good designer knows that the entire point of design is to get the message across. Again, design is not visual art. It is creating experiences that help tell the story. When you say, “I don’t care about the design of this, just the words,” what you are really saying is, “I don’t care if anyone reads this.”
Design is not visual art. When you say, “I don’t care about the design of this, just the words,” you are really saying, “I don’t care if anyone reads this.”
Only when brand leaders stop thinking of design as “what looks nice” and start thinking of all brand design in terms of strategic user experiences will they be best equipped to help the brand succeed.
| So what do people really mean when they talk about UX design?
Often, when a brand leader or marketer talks about “UX design,” what he or she really means is “digital architecture” (which is kind of ironic, because many of the designers I know who have the strongest understanding of UX got their start in print design). Sometimes a company will hire an outside “UX expert” to come in and critique their website or digital product. Some of these are legit professionals who have been trained in strategic thinking, and some of these are people who throw around jargon and absurd key phrases like, “more calls to action above the fold, and also SEO.” Of course, things like SEO and calls to action are actual important considerations, but let’s be clear: a website that opens up to a headline and subhead consisting of multiple lines of marketing-speak and three CTA buttons all on the top half of the homepage is not practicing good UX. Good UX is just as much about creating a pleasant experience that flows naturally and stands out from the crowd as it is about generating clicks. Any good designer knows this. Or should.
That said, the emergence of UX design as an entity in and of itself is not a wholly bad thing. It has forced young designers to more thoroughly consider something they should have been considering all along, and it has forced experienced designers to more consciously stay current when it comes to modern ideas about strategy and technology. And I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the designers who have dedicated a great deal of time and energy to studying and honing their skills in UX. These are the designers who often have trained themselves to be better problem-solvers in and outside of work.
There is also nothing wrong with a designer calling herself/himself a “UX designer.” In fact, in today’s job market, it can be both smart and financially beneficial to promote one’s self in that way if possible. But any designer who says, “I’m a graphic/visual designer, not a UX designer,” is doing us all a disservice, and probably has a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to be a designer at all.
It’s time to stop thinking of design as decorative visuals and start thinking of it as an investment in innovative thinking and strategic communication that creates value and a competitive advantage in the market. Good design tells stories, and no brand has ever succeeded without telling a compelling story. Good design keeps people engaged, and no brand has ever succeeded without building engagement and loyalty. Good design shapes brand experiences. And at the end of the day, the user experience is all that matters.