The breaking of the UX industry
Or what to do when your UX has nothing to do with UI any more
(Reading Time: 11min)
Here's a truism.
For the vast majority of people UX and UI are synonyms.
UI designers who can code perhaps, or UI designers who can wireframe and code but UI as central to the proposition no matter what. I've argued against that perception but now I surrender, that battle is largely lost and I can't be bothered to fight it anymore. No, this post has little to do with fighting that perception, though I will explain why it exists, this post is about why the entire argument has been rendered meaningless and what we can do about it.
For those purists in the UX≠UI camp, and I unashamedly hold my hands up to having my tent in that camp, that idea that UX is the equivilent of UI is a nonsense. Every human interaction online and offline, is intrinsically linked to every other part of the human experience; be that with a brand, person to person, in print, in media in communication or just the plain simple perception of a company. We design the entire experience not just one disconnected part of it, the UI.
If you're in the UX=UI camp, which is far and away a much bigger and far more successful camp, that definition is too wide and too ill-defined to be of any value. The UX is of a single rigidly defined, easily foccussed on, part of that experience and that is the UI of a product. It's the usability of the UI that defines UX. After all that's what the IT industry, far and away our biggest employer, demands and that's what it gets.
Great if you're a UI/UX, or a DEV/UX, or a UX Unicorn, or UX Ninja, or UX Rockstar or a UX <Insert Silly Name Here> and unlike a lot of other posts I'm not going to disparage what you do, it's simple Supply and Demand and I'm prepared to bet you're in much more demand than most purists.
Fair play, you can't argue with success and boy has the UX=UI camp been successful! Way more than us purists.
Purists. I keep using that term and it's an emotive one isn't it? It suggests that if you're not UX≠UI you're somehow less, some how tainted. I don't mean to offend - it just comes naturally, it's a talent - what I'm refering to is the pure definition of User Experience in it's original form. Here's a brief history lesson if you don't know what that form is.
One of many starting points
For those of us who pre-date the term UX it came as a bit of shock that there was even a label for what we were already doing, we knew we had drifted over the blurry edges of the sprawling disciplines that were MMI, HCI and UCD but didn't know that it had a name. Don’t get me wrong, that's not a complaint or meant to be in any way shape or form derogatory, the industry we know and love would not have had the success it has had if we hadn't had that hook to hang best practice off, if we didn't have the science behind it formalised. No, I’m throwing it out there to show that far from what you may have heard User Experience did not start when Don Norman first labelled it back in 1993, that was just the point that it started to come together and evolve into what we now know the discipline to be.
Yes, yes I know it's an unwritten rule that we’re all required to look down on Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman nowadays and, yes some of their user data and conclusions really doesn't tally with my own, I admit, but who cares? I’m not so far up my own wireframes that I'm going to ignore or sneer at a group of people who have put in the hours to help create an entire global industry just because occasionally we don’t agree. So when looking for a simple definition of User Experience, theirs is as good as anyone’s, so that's where I’ll start.
"User experience encompasses all aspects Don Norman/Jakob Nielsen )of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products." (
The first thing you’ll notice, if you’re one of those that equate UX with UI, is that there is no mention of UI at all. UI might or might not be part of product but it has little or nothing to do with the rest of the definition's other areas; company and services.
The second thing you'll notice is that Usability and even Design are also conspicuous by their absence. Why is that important? Because they too are a teeny tiny little bit of what UX was conceived to be when engaging with all aspects of a solution that encompasses but goes completely beyond digital.
So when I use the term purist, it's that definition I'm refering to. The design of pure experiences not of product.
'That' argument, again and again and again.
Aren't you tired of the argument? The whole what is/isn't UX, who is/isn't a UX thing?
I know I am. Yes, I'm also tired of seeing UI portfolios dressed up as UX portfolios. Truly excellent UI portfolios that do the designer a disservice because they should be a UI professional and are diluting that skill by trying to take on another discipline.
I'm tired of having opinion overrule quantifiable user data and insight. Tired of being approached for frontend coding or UI design positions that have zero to do with the original definition of UX and even less to to do with anything approaching design based on quantifiable user data. Tired of the sheer number of unethical and exploitive unaccredited UX courses that "can make you into a UX in four weeks" (or less) that grow in number every month.
But more than that I'm tired of the whole pathetic argument itself.
Take look a that original definition again. Do you see any of those little terms and labels we guard so preciously and use to define what we do, who we are? CX, UX, DSD, Service Design, IXD, CRM, etc? No, but they all fall under that umbrella definition and so do an awful lot more. Yet you still find UX and CX squabbling online about who does what and to whom without realising that they're all part of the same experiential spectrum (simply making life easier for people) and while one might specialise in offline and the other online ultimately they may both share the same audience, people, and the same purpose crafting a pleasing experience for them.
Stop fighting, it's annoying, unprofessional and silly and makes us look like amateurs!
The original UX definition is dead, long live the new UX
A huge amount of UX roles, the vast majority in fact, give lip service to the quality human experience that goes beyond whether a CTA should be a button or a text link, beyond if the navigation should be top, left, or not displayed until called, and no matter how much we purists complain we're forgetting basic UX Psychology Lesson 1: Deeply entrenched user behaviour and expectations will not change, it can be catered for or circumvented but it can't be changed.
That leaves us in the very odd position of being in a global business worth billions, that has lord know how many books published about it every month, that has hundreds of new graduates being turned out from various UX courses across the world, of various quality, and thousands more who found themselves operating as a UX with little idea of how or why, where people with no concept of UX's beginnings have to graft the term on to their job titles if they want a hope of finding a job and leaves us with an industry that has absolutely no agreed definitions no agreed standards and nobody to protect them if we did.
The one thing we can all agree on is that as professional, credible, sustainable, business models go that is one is about as bad as it gets!
What goes around comes around
UX, I think we have established, has been defined as UI not by the people who practice it but by the industries that employ it, most noticeably the IT industry. That industry in particular is changing. Not about to change, not expected to change, is changing.
The IoT is changing it, driverless cars are changing it, wearable tech is changing it, SIRI, Cortana and Amazon Echo are changing it, AI, AR and VR are changing it. UI is becoming minimal or even nonexistent in those and an ever growing amount of other cases but . . . human experience is core to all of them.
The days of standalone product are dying and along with it UI focussed UX. Products and services defined not by how they are used but how people experience all the myriad touch points of the final solution.
UX as both a digital and real life solution that is purely experiential and doesn't need a UI to work beautifully. You know, like the original definition.
Daunting? No, not at all. You see for a lot of us this whole UX evolution has been chaotic but ultimately circular. Torturously so, at times. What we’re seeing may be new and exciting for tech innovation but when it comes to UX … it's about as old school as you can get.
There was a time when we old timers - shakes walking stick at whippersnappers - did take into consideration every human touch point when designing a solution so that the whole thing was integrated. If we were designing a mortgage system for a bank, for example, we couldn't just talk to BAs, System Architects and Developers, not even just business stakeholder such as Bank Managers or Mortgage advisors, we’d also have to talk to the staff and customers in branch. The staff because they had more day-to-day interaction with customers than anybody else and the customers for obvious reasons.
We’d find out first hand what the customer motivations were - over and above buying a property - what their worries were, what they needed to be reassured about, what they trusted and distrusted; all their perceptions. It wouldn't just be a digital system – probably a point of sale in branch, the web was still in its infancy and eFinance a distant unrealistic concept - it would take into account the crossover from tech to real life. It had to or it would fail.
We would be forced (think about that for a second, forced to take on “all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” where as today, where you’d be more likely to be forced to ignore the offline experience completely) to investigate and try and improve the in branch experience, the call centre experience, the mail and marketing experience all long before the customer ever got close to applying for a mortgage in person on any system.
In all honesty it isn't that difficult, it's been done before and for most of us who ‘get’ that original definition it's a welcome return to human centred design rather than product centred design.
Great for the UX≠UI camp, what about the UX=UI camp, will there be an end to UI? No, of course not!! I keep hearing about the demise of the UI industry and it's a nonsense. The web for one isn't going anywhere, anytime soon, do you think phone and tablet apps are going to be gone by Christmas? Stop saying UI is dying, it's not.
UI is not going away, if anything the demand for those who can craft good UI will increase but, and it's a a big but, UI will not define UX anymore. It looks inevitable to anyone following the history of this industry that the break between design for product and for design for people isn't just coming (or coming back depending on your point of view) it's already here.
So how do you UX without UI?
Step away from the design and take a look, again, at the science. Just five years ago User Researchers were the forgotten segment of our industry. UX Research was 'common sense' or 'advanced common sense' and was no more valid than any given HiPPo's direction. User Testing wasn't required, it would all come out in bug testing and UAT. User Experience had to be tailored to meet Business Requirements.
My, how things have changed.
My pure research colleagues are now in more demand than UX Designers. Why? Because they've proved their worth, because they bring insights that cut right through common sense and opinion to what is actually needed and more than that, by dealing directly with actual real people they are the natural bridge between offline and online, between digital and physical. If, by now, you haven't realised that User Requirements are the most Important Business Requirments you might as well sell your shares now because any upstart competitors will now run you into the ground and vthat's almost exclusively down to my Research peers.
That's how you do it, Research. Not just how a UI is used but the entire journey offline and on, how does that experience fail or succeed? How do you measure it, how do you cater for it and how do you remove opinion to make sure the silution is sound?
Those of us who love the research and testing need to bring that passion and knowledge to our UI peers who don't - or worse don't know that they should - base designs on quality research. Those of us who know how to design and test need to step up and show not just how it's done but how to implement the results properly. We need to stop thinking of users as some odd conceptual digital entity and think of them as humans with real experiences and emotive, psychologically valid reactions.
We as an industry need to stop being defined by just one aspect of what we do, that aspect demanded by the IT industry, and stop pigeonholing ourselves in to little CX, UX, UI (add two digit label of choice here) definitions. I'm all for specialisation and dedication to a single aspect of User Experience, (let's hear it for the expert, especially expert User Researchers!) but, damn, blinkers off people.
We're not working in silos, we're not just creating product anymore, we're not just creating UI layouts, we're creating experiences! Or at least we should be, if not . . . we're probably going to get left behind.
Afterthought (you can ignore this bit as it's about what's next for me rather than the industry).
I was about to post this when it occurred that I'd left a huge gaping hole in the middle of it. All through this little diatribe I’ve talked about three things.
1. The existence and meaning of the original simple definition
2. The nonexistence of any definitions and standards
3. The total absence of anything approaching an industry body to bring the it all together
If we only had that organisation, those agreed, legally recognised, binding set of global standards that I keep banging on about, we could get back to basics, back to treating people asv humans instead of just users, back to treating product as just one aspect of people's experience. We could limit those unaccredited courses, we could end the predeliction of potentially illegal and more often than not meaningless portfolios, we could stop the incessant noise around UX, stop the arguments around UX, stop having to having to defend or deny even being a UX.
Who's is going to do it though? I mean the web is full of UXers venting their frustrations, venting their frustrations at how frustrating it is to keep hearing other Uxers' frustrations being vented, so who is going to get off their soapbox and do something?
Well since you asked so nicely.
Oh Hell, What Have I Done?
If you know the industry you’ve probably heard of Karl Smith, the chairman of the Human Centred Design Society. You won't find him presenting at many UX Meetings, you might find him organising a few. You won't find him, unlike me, bleating on about UX and all the noise around it, he's too busy trying to get the job done to be distracted by the noise. He is one of those who designs experiences not UIs and his posts on both the IoT or the legally dubious use of UX portfolios should be required reading for anyone who even thinks about UX. So when he approached me to consider taking a Director‘s role at the Human Centred Design Society to try and slowly build that aforementioned industry body, to help establish those very standards and definitions we’ve been crying out for, and look at establishing an ethical base for the process, my first reaction was amazement at him taking on the daunting task, the second was admiration at the attempt and finally, when I heard of the others who had agreed to play a role … it was obviously time to either put up or shut up.
Lord help me, I was never very good at keeping my big gob shut.
We can't do it alone though and none of us are so self-important to think we alone can create all that. Next year we’ll be launching a membership site and undertaking on a series of consultations to define and refine an industry wide consensus on standards, definitions and behaviour and not just on UX but for anybody interested in or involved in human centred design (that includes the UI and Product UXers too) and attempting to take this forward as a legally recognised entity.
I’ve zero idea if it will work, though I love the idea. I have zero idea if it can or should counter the fallout from this breaking apart of UX and UI awareness, but I’m willing to find out.
Wouldn't it be strange if the way to bring everything together, was to first break it apart first?
Here's to strange.
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Ethics Committee Director @HCDSociety
Robert Powell is a User Centred Design consultant, working across both digital and non-digital mediums to provide simple solutions to complex problems across... more
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