Thursday, March 24, 2011

What's holding back UX

I don't know if my peers would agree with me.

On second thought I'm pretty sure they would disagree.

Actually, the more I think about it, they might even be skeptical about my claim to be their peer.

Which brings me back full circle to the title of this post - What's holding back UX.

UX is a niche discipline. UX strategy is a niche within a niche. Consulting organizations barely recognize UX at all. Some would argue with this point, but I believe that's because the big organizations that have UX professionals more often than not put them in the role of interaction designer and call it UX. Only a few private industry companies have just begun to allow the discipline into their organizations and a ridiculously small minority have actually created an operationalized talent and role structure to support the discipline. Most companies who hire Information Architects ram them into some other label in their existing structure because HR doesn't recognize the need for a discernment.

Is this because the discipline is "new"?

That just doesn't ring true to me. When businesses started bringing programmers into their companies in the 60's and 70's, I dont think they were shy about calling them programmers or system analysts or some other unique label. And even if they did not know what to call them, it did not take the dozen years that UX has been a formal discipline to create a unique title taxonomy within industry.

So why is UX a niche discipline? I have a unique theory.


I have been formally working in the field since 1999 and was a avid reader of HCI books back in 1993. I still to this day get judged all the time by other UX professionals because I came at UX from technology. In 1999, because I was an engineer, other UX practitioners assumed that I not only lacked an ability to design useable interactions, but even went so far as to say that listening to my input was by definition a waste of time. While not all designers or researchers or strategists or visual designers treated me like this (big props to my peeps who worked with me on and, the vast majority went out of their way to snub me and every other software engineer or architect I worked with because we were, in their eyes, not educated in design. This attitude is still rampant today and may even be more so with the hordes of graduates from formal HCI programs across the country.

There are too many flaws and horrible repercussions of this to name, but I'll go over my top 5:

1) Not all engineers or non-designers are alike. Many of us actually care that something will be adopted and used. While I whole-heartedly agree that there are way too many technologists who are too biased by how much perceived effort it takes to write code to make something work in a particular way, it is not universal. And i truly believe that if anyone took the time to show the engineers the math behind why making something useful, usable and desirable was the right thing to do for the business, they would be on the bandwagon cheering the loudest. Any software geek I have worked with has been easily converted to User Centered methodology once they understood why it was superior during the discovery, concept and design phases of a project. The numbers are just too compelling for a geek to deny.

2) The exclusionary attitude scuttles the whole philosophical premise of UX - people count and deserve to be treated in a way that makes them feel respected. You can't be taken seriously as a practitioner who supposedly cares about people's perception when your demeanor towards your teammates is so arrogant.

3) Revolutionary breakthroughs in any discipline only come from those who can see past the conceptual boundaries that hold back transformative progress. Non-designers have something designers lack - a lack of knowledge of convention of the design industry. The very reason their input is met with disdain is the reason they should be embraced.

4) UX needs more allies. We have to fight to get in on strategy and concept. And sometimes even have to fight during the design process. The more allies UX has, the less adversarial the process will be, and subsequently more opportunities, acceptance and success will follow.

5) Work actually can be fun. The most fun projects I have worked on are the ones where the collaborative multi-disciplinary process was set up as "play time". Weather its a design slam or an ideation workshop, collaborative projects are more fun and are more often more successful (duh...teams that like and respect each other more often than not produce better work).

Some readers may argue that software geeks can often be this way too. I agree, but it's just not as pervasive in my experience.

One seemingly esoteric ingredient that I believe has led us all to this place of pretentiousness is surprisingly enough the semantics of the disciplinary labels them selves. When you label disciplines and people as "Creatives", "Designers" and "Technologists" or other variations on these themes, it is an implicit slight to the people on the outside. Are UX professionals who use crazy hard applications not technical? Are software geeks who solve ridiculous challenges not creative designers? This may be heresy in the field, but I believe that being more careful in how we create and apply these labels will go a long way to starting to tear down the adversarial boundaries between the disciplines.

Rating time:

Pretentiousness of disciplines: Crap

Acceptance of outside perspectives: Like it

"If you really want something in life you have to work for it. Now quiet, they're about to announce the lottery numbers." - Homer Simpson


Anna said...

What is the difference between crap and garbage?

Stephen Fishman said...

The three options are explained in the first blog post ( Here is an excerpt.

1) Something I like - this category is for anything that is interesting or well executed like (a very interesting site)

2) Garbage - this category is for most anything I don't like that someone else may find of value like David Hassellhoff (I don't really understand this at all)

3) Crap - this category is for anything that has no redeeming value whatsoever. If anyone finds any redeeming value in something in this category it's probably because they had something to do with it being so crappy or they just haven't thought it out well enough, like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems

k_ehrhard said...

...and I still have no idea what it is that you do...

Emily said...

I have also been working in UX since 1999 and I could not agree more. I have a hard time going to UX events because of the attitude-- and I have a Master's in the field. I remember a local HCI event where someone was shouted down for saying that sometimes we have to make UI decisions without usability testing because clients won't pay for it.

I also hate the over-the-top documentation style for some of our deliverables and love how much easier it is for anyone on the team to jump into whatever software they prefer (even PPT) and make a visual representation that communicates UI ideas to the group.

We should be know as the "connecters" in an organization who bring people together (and some of us are) instead of arrogant know-it-alls who can't work with "designers" or "engineers" because they "don't get it."

Stephen Fishman said...

thanks for the comment Emily. Please follow me so I'll get motivated to write more regularly.