Raise Your Hand If You’re Sick of the Letters: UX
The term “UX,” the industry accepted initials for User Experience, is dead to me. Think about it, even the initials don’t make sense. Was UE too on the nose? It’s time for UX (and its myriad related job titles: UX Designer, UX/UI Designer, UX Architect, UX Developer, UX Writer, UX Strategist, UX Researcher, UX Analyst, UX Consultant, etc.) to go the way of the Webmaster & Human Computer.
It’s OK to admit that we screwed up and need to fix things; it’s the first step to improving the situation. After all, as designers we understand how important it is to analyze & understand design solutions, identify opportunities to improve, course correct, and move on. Let’s face it… the UX of UX stinks.
The term itself is vague & confusing, becoming effectively meaningless. Ask ten people what a UX person does and you’ll get ten answers. Sure, there will be overlap in those answers, but you’re guaranteed to get a broad range of tasks & skills—from project management to programming and everything in-between. The one common thread in the answers will likely have something to do with the design of a digital user interface. A user interface is not a user experience.
So what’s a user experience?
Don Norman, the person credited with coining the term defines it this way:
“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.
Think about that for a minute — all aspects of a user’s interaction with a company. Consider the multiple ways someone might interact with an airline company: Watching a television commercial, searching for and buying a plane ticket via a website or app, receiving email updates & alerts about the ticket/trip, checking in for a flight, waiting at the gate, listening to the boarding announcements, asking for an upgrade, lining up with the appropriate boarding group, scanning the boarding pass at the gate, storing carry-on luggage in an overhead compartment, finding your seat, listening to and reading the safety procedures, interactions with the flight crew, in flight entertainment & dining, using the lavatory, retrieving checked luggage, and all of the tiny details in between. THAT’S A LOT OF INTERACTIONS!
Norman’s original definition of user experience covers an extremely diverse cross-section of procedures, processes, and disciplines — far above and beyond the design of a usable user interface. At some point over the past 10–15 years the definition of UX evolved, and, to paraphrase the man who coined the phrase, it’s become horribly misused.
The UX Blob
As UX became associated more closely with the creation of digital interfaces, it began to consume other initials like IA (information architect), IxD (interaction design), HCI (human computer interaction), VD (visual design), CD (creative direction), and PM (project/product management). User researchers, copywriters, and even web/app developers also got swept up by the UX movement. Each specialized and important skill was hungrily gobbled up by the UX Blob and shat back out into a muddied combination of skills someone might expect in a UX Designer. Everything became UX. Nothing was UX.
This evolution led to the ongoing existential crisis of the UX Design community. What is a UX Designer? What’s the difference between UX & UI?What skills should UX Designers have? Why aren’t UX Designers taken seriously? Why won’t the dev team listen to me? OMG is UX even a thing?!?! Let’s let some UX “thought leaders” weigh in on the topic:
It’s high time to separate the term user experience from any specific role or industry. There is no UX Designer who oversaw the process for boarding an airplane and stowing luggage in an overhead bin. A UX Designer didn’t train flight attendants about how best to interact with passengers. Everyone in an organization is collectively responsible for cultivating a positive user experience. Organizations that are the most successful in this regard tend to have strong cultures, empowered employees, and a clear mission & vision that’s championed from the top down.
When it comes to the design of a digital experience (i.e. user interface), it’s time we apply some usability best practices to the names of the roles involved in the process. Rather than titles that tend to be vague catch-alls (eh-hem-UX Designer), let’s be specific about the roles and their responsibilities. Here are some title recommendations based on my experience working with a variety of product design teams through the years — each role is responsible for advocating for the end user and collectively delivering the best possible user experience:
Responsible for ensuring an optimal end-to-end user experience for their product. The Product Owner has a deep understanding of short & long-term business goals and customer problems/needs. They collaborate with their immediate team and senior leadership within their organization to cultivate a product strategy & roadmap to deliver a market-leading product.
Work closely with the Product Owner, Content Strategist, and Development Lead to create the overall design strategy for a product — this includes defining information architecture, user flows, and high-level interface designs. Lead design workshops to create innovative solutions for validated customer problems. Be the owner of and/or key contributor to the product component library & style guide.
Conduct desirability and usability studies to determine viability of the product and its features. Analyze metrics and present findings on how the product is being used. Identify & validate customer problems to be prioritized by the Product Owner. Be an impartial and consistent voice of the customer for the product team.
User Interface (UI) Designer
Design detailed user interfaces that the user will interact with. This will include interaction design, transitions & motion effects, prototyping, and production design to support the development team. A UI Designer will likely work with and contribute to design elements within an existing component library & style guide.
Create a consistent voice & tone for all content within and related to the product. This includes marketing copy, instructional & messaging content, and labels. Ensure the content aligns and is consistent with the design strategy and user expectations.
The path forward…
Designing a user experience isn’t a specific role or job for one person. It’s a collective and cross-functional effort critical to the success of every organization. If everyone can agree to ditch those 2 letters in job titles, and use roles that are more specific, I believe we may never have to hear someone ask us to “do the UX” ever again.