Why I think Ryan Carson doesn't believe in UX Professionals, and why I do | September 5, 2010

In a fantastically timed bit of linkbait, Ryan Carson called bullshit on the title of “UX Professional” while attending the dConstruct conference we organise in Brighton. At the conference we announced that we were hiring a Senior User Experience Designer so it would be easy to put two and two together and assume that he was calling us out. However I actually understand where he’s coming from. I don’t agree with him mind, but I do understand.

Back in the early days of the web you just had web designers. These multi-disciplined individuals would design the pages, code up the table based layouts, set up the database and program the CMS. They were able to do all these jobs because the field of knowledge back then was fairly limited and hence the outputs were fairly basic. You could also argue that websites were basic precisely because they were designed and built by a single person, but that’s probably for another article.

As the field of knowledge grew and sites got bigger and more complex, distinct roles started to emerge. First the roles split into designer and developer. Then as sites demanded more off their back-ends you’d have database architects, systems administrators, systems architects and a whole slew of sub roles. Similarly on the front end you would find people who specialised in interface design, front end development, motion design and, more recently, user experience design.

Now user experience design is an interesting one as it’s both a series of activities (research, information architecture, interaction design etc.) as well as a job title in it’s own right. For smaller projects it’s perfectly feasible for a single person to plan the architecture, sketch the wireframes, design the interface and even code up the pages; just in the same way that it would be perfectly feasible for a single builder to plan and build an extension to your house. However as a project becomes more complicated you need more people with deeper expertise. So just as large building projects require quantity surveyors, draftsmen, architects, interior designers, wayfinding designers and a whole host of other experts, so do websites.

I think the reason Ryan thinks that “‘UX professional’ is a bullshit job title” designed to “over-charge naive clients” is because he’s never actually been in the position to need one. If you look at Ryans’ background, he worked for agencies in the late nineties and early noughties when the field of user experience was still in it’s infancy. As such I suspect that he’s never worked with a team of dedicated UX people.

In more recent years Ryan has become a conference organiser and content publisher, producing relatively straightforward websites which really don’t need a dedicated UX person. He’s also dabbled as a start-up entrepreneur, although sadly none have been a huge commercial success as of yet. In fact, Ryan is very much embedded in the bootstrapped start-up culture where all you need is a smart designer and developer to see your ideas come to life. So in early stage start-ups where you’re designing for people like yourselves, you can definitely get away without a dedicated UX person if you’ve got a talented team with enough overlap. However once the project grows, you’ll probably benefit from the help of a dedicated UX professional.

10 years ago I thought much the same way as Ryan. I couldn’t understand how companies could spend millions on a website when a designer and developer could knock something together in a weekend. Similarly why would anybody need a pretentious title like Information Architect when I’m perfectly capable of putting together the site map for the brochureware site I was working on myself?

Of course I quickly learned how naive I was being. There’s a huge difference between knocking together the site-map for a piece of brochureware and developing a complete ontology, taxonomy and controlled vocabulary for a site with hundreds of thousands of data-points. Similarly there a big difference spending a couple of days working out wireframes in balsamiq for that shopify project you’re working on and spending months prototyping and testing a complex application with hundreds of interactions.

Sadly I do think Ryan has accidentally hit on something here, and it’s a trend I’m seeing more and more of; web designers with an interest in user experience re-branding themselves as UX professionals. So there are an increasing number of people out there who are calling themselves UX designers because they’ve sketched out some wireframes and sat in on a couple of usability tests.

By contrast a typical UX person will have a much deeper understanding of cognitive psychology, human computer interaction and design research than their graphically focused colleagues. They will have more experience running stake-holder interviews, usability evaluations and ethnographic studies. They will be more versed in the creation of personas, concept models, scenarios, user-flows and storyboards. They will be able to create wireframes and experience prototypes using a wide range of tools and to differing levels of fidelity depending on the questions being asked and the intended audience. In fact there are a whole host of skills that differentiate a UX designer from a more general web designer. So if this sounds like you why don’t you check out our job for a user experience designer at Clearleft

As far as Ryan is concerned, I suspect he isn’t as naive as he sounds. After all, he’s been in the industry for a long time and even ran an online UX conference a few months back which Clearleft spoke at. So I can’t believe Ryan would put something on he didn’t believe in just for the money. If he did, that would show a real contempt for his customers. Instead I suspect it’s just a way to stir up controversy and drive traffic to his site. However if Ryan really believes there’s no difference between a web designer and a user experience designer I’m sure we can supply him a big list of books to read and conferences to attend in order to change his mind.

So I suggest that the UX community bear in mind where Ryan’s coming from and realise that for some people UX is just a quality attribute or set of activities. After all, not everybody on the web is building the kind of large scale projects that benefit from a dedicated UX resource. Sometimes a UX savvy web designer is just enough.

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