Waking up from the dream of UX

Peter Merholz
Mar 4 · 4 min read

(What follows is a muddle of thoughts spurred by dialog across blogs, mailing lists, and Twitter. I don’t quite have the time to shape it into something that makes tight sense, but I hope it’s useful anyway, as a part of that larger conversation.)

In the most recent episode of Finding Our Way, Jesse had this to say about the dream of UX:

If I think about the original dream of UX, the dream was that these practices would enable product strategy, product definition, product decisions to be made with experiential outcomes as the primary criteria for whether or not something shipped. And the idea implicit in that, being that value would naturally flow from optimizing for experiential outcomes, that has not really happened. The designers have been sort of sent back to their desks to make more screens… The promise hasn’t been realized.

And there are a lot of the UX old school folks like ourselves who feel like something has been lost along the way, okay, and are getting pretty discouraged about what it’s going to take to recapture that or to fulfill that promise. But my question is, Was that promise one worth investing in, in the first place? Like was the dream of UX, really just a dream?

Since we recorded this, I’ve seen a couple demonstrations of “UX old school folks” discontent: Mark Hurst’s “Why I’m Losing Faith in UX,” or Cornelius Rachieru’s recent tweet:

Thing is, they might as well just be saying, “Make UX Great Again.” Those were not glory days, as a whole, for matters of user experience. It was exciting for us practicing it, being on the vanguard of a new discipline, granted authority and influence long before we knew how to wield it (I ran a design team when I was 28). Oh, and we were younger, more naïve, had more hair.

But in no objective sense were things better for UX. Most companies didn’t know it existed. Most who did, drastically underinvested in it. Those who were willing to invest in it were savvy enough to listen to thought leaders, but that was a paltry percentage of the real work to be done.

UX in 2021

What’s happened by 2021 is that UX is not interesting in and of itself anymore. UX is a given. As Joe Lamantia said in a mailing list I’m on, “it’s furniture.” And the challenges and frustrations people are expressing are largely due to this maturation.

We’re moving from “the dream of UX” to “the reality of UX.”

Personally, and perhaps idealistically, I’m still bullish on the promise and potential for the humanistic practices that UX represents. I work with companies, stupid boring old companies in industries like enterprise software, and banking, and insurance services, who see the potential for good design to advance their business in a human-centered way. I’m still hopeful that more people “doing UX” will continue to nudge human experience towards the center of business concerns.

I’m not naïve. I read, and largely agree with, Ruined by Design. I see design exploited to serve unsavory business practices. I witness product development organizations that view design as a production job, feeding assets to development like shoveling coal into a train engine.

Things aren’t great. But then, they never were.

But I see the massive investment companies are making in building in-house design teams, and more and more design leaders in the C-Suite, and I think things are getting better.

Yes, we’re going through a phase where design was largely seen as a contributor to production, as, to non-designers, that was the evident value of the practice. But I am also seeing more and more companies hiring “super senior IC” designers, as they recognize they’ve lost the positive influence that design can have on strategy, on holistic and coherent experiences.

What Design and UX need is engaged leadership

I guess what I’d say is, don’t confuse a moment in time for some new normal. Things continue to evolve. And instead of whingeing about how things were better in the old days, it’s on Design and UX leadership to do the hard work of figuring out how to advance our humanistic values. This means shifting our attention away from the ‘fun stuff’ — tinkering with process, creating inspiring visions — and engaging with the difficult and messy stuff of people and organizations: communication, relationships, and education. It also means accepting what Noah Fang just tweeted in a discussion:

UX And Design also need new voices

As we move on from The Dream, I find that I’m way less interested in the solipsistic whining of successful middle-aged pale males, and instead disheartened by how we’re engaging the next generation of designers. A couple years ago, Jesse shared a tweet thread from a young designer at Instagram:

And more recently, a college student aired her self-flagellation of seeking purpose in UX Design:

And there’s clearly a disconnect about how we’re framing the work, and then how the work is actually being done.

It’s also worth noting that, in those Bygone Days of UX Yore, industry leadership and public commentary almost wholly excluded voices of color. As we’re seeing in so many aspects of our modern life, we need to focus attention on our BIPOC peers, who are doing the work of charting a path toward a more truly inclusive future. Lisa Angela opened many eyes with Undoing the Toxic Dogmatism of Digital Design. David Dylan Thomas’s Design for Cognitive Bias shows us the traps we unknowingly step in. And Vivianne Castillo broke open my mind in her time on our podcast, and through her work with Humanity Centered, where she advocates for embracing truly human-centered practices (including self-care and trauma management) in our work.

As the UX profession matures, it’s time to wake up, and begin the real work of making those dreams a reality. But just because we’re moving away from the ‘dream,’ doesn’t mean we’re giving up hope. I’m quite hopeful of our collective ability to steadily move things in a healthier direction.

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