What's in a name: The duality of user experience | July 6, 2011

As somebody who has publically stated that they “don’t care about user experience” and is fed up of “defining the dammed thing” I find myself being drawn into discussions about the term far more often than I’d like.

Some designers think that user experience is just a made up name and that we’re all user experience designers really. Others think that User Experience is a term used by consultants to trick clients out of money and would prefer it we all just stuck to the title of web designer. Some feel that user experience is simply common sense design while others see it as a land grab to own the fun bit of the design process. This is all complete nonsense of course, which is why I keep getting drawn into an argument I don’t really want to have and one that isn’t especially beneficial to the industry.

It’s obviously nonsense to argue that the field of UX design doesn’t exist as there are hundreds of books and conferences devoted to the practice, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people with UX in their job title and an unfathomable number of blog posts about the subject.

I think one of the big problems is that user experience isn’t one thing; it’s several. On a basic level every item that has been designed creates an experience through use. So some people naturally assume that every act of design is in fact an act of user experience design. After all, if all design results in an experience, aren’t all designers user experience designers?

The answer of course is no. It’s entirely possible to design something without thinking about how it’ll be experienced. In fact I believe this is still the way most things are designed. Bad experiences are rarely the deliberate choice of the designer. Instead they are usually the unfortunate outcome of an ill-considered process.

So does this mean that to be a user experience designer all you need to do is think about the outcome? Well in the broadest sense of the term, possibly; but in the sense that it’s used by most web professionals, definitely not.

You see, as well as being a measure of the quality of an interaction, user experience design is also a field of practice. Or more specifically an umbrella term that covers several fields of practice including Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Usability, Interface Design, Information Design and several more I’m probably forgetting. All of these practices go into designing good user experiences, so are part of the user experience cannon.

As all of these are effectively aspects of good web design, I can see why experienced practitioners who have gained mastery over many of these fields no longer see the distinction or think it’s necessary. So for them, web design (or simply design) makes sense as a title. I understand this point of view and agree with it to an extent.
However there is a danger here that relates to the popular notion of the web designer and something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The popular notion of a web designer is that of a graphic designer, possibly with some technical skills, whose sole focus is designing the look and feel of a website. During the early days of the web this was very much the norm. Sites weren’t especially complicated and many of these advanced skills were yet to have been adopted or even invented.

Today, the vast majority of websites are still designed and built by talented generalists, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just that some of the larger and more complex sites do require composite teams of specialists with a singular focus. Experts in information categorisation, human computer interaction or interface design. They also need people who specialise in specific programming languages, databases, security, or application architecture. The history of all human progress can be counted by the increased specialisation of individuals amongst a group, and I see this as a good thing.

So we have this strange dichotomy that the term webdesign can be used to describe both a novice and an expert, a neophyte and a master. This is where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in. If you’re not familiar with this concept it’s the observation that novices suffer from the illusion of superiority and tend to rate their skills much higher than experts because they don’t fully understand the breadth of the field they need to master. Or to use a much quoted aphorism, “they know what they know, but they don’t know what they don’t know”. By comparison, experts tend to know more, but are also more conscious about what they don’t know, hence making them less sure about their expertise.

I’m currently seeing this all the time when it comes to designers discovering User Experience for the first time. Many designers have started calling themselves user experience designers because they have discovered usability testing and wireframing. However these skills are simply the tip of the iceberg and do not a user experience designer make. Because of this I think it’s important for experts to hold mastery of complex skills aloft, rather than convince people that we’re all effectively doing the same thing, when many of us clearly are not. So it’s useful for us to separate skill sets and be able to tell people that what they are doing isn’t in fact user experience design, at least not yet.

Being able to define yourself and differentiate yourself is useful in other areas like recruitment and sales. For instance if you recruit for a Web Designer rather than a Senior User Experience Designer you will end up with a very different class of applicant with a very different range of skills.

Like all job titles, they are much more useful for people progressing through their careers than they are for people who have already reached the pinnacle. So just because you no longer see a need for a job title doesn’t mean that the others don’t or that the title or practice no longer exists and we’re all just interconnected balls of design energy. Sometimes hanging out a shingle is the only way to separate yourself from the person down the road selling inferior goods.

Posted at July 6, 2011 5:24 PM


Pete Love said on July 6, 2011 8:29 PM

Good to read a considered post on this subject.

I agree that a lot of the problem comes down to the term ‘web designer’ as much as the term ‘UX designer’. Because ‘web design’ has associations with the early days of the web, many people are reluctant to use it as it implies that they are a jack of all trades, out of touch, and possibly unaware even of distinctions such as UI design, UX design, etc…. even though ‘web design’ remains a good generalist description for what they do (even when they may have expert knowledge of many aspects of design that could be broken out as specialisms).

And that to me is the one of the root problems in all this - in this society we generally see specialism as being inherently preferable to generalism, which I believe it isn’t. Specialism is great - and like you say essential to our notions of progress - but generalists are just as important - they are the ones that help provide the bigger picture, bring those specialisms together, and discover new connections between them. The experienced ‘Renaissance Man/Woman’ is as important now as they have ever been - and I’m proud to think of myself as one. But until we are valued as much as specialists, then the pressure on inexperienced generalists to label themselves with more ‘valuable’ terms will continue.

Avangelist said on July 6, 2011 9:26 PM

I’ve written this response 10 different ways. I’m sticking with this one.

I play in a band, every week for 3hrs we lock ourselves away in a studio, rehearse what we know and write new material. It’ll start with a riff. Then the drums will get going, we’ll roll around that for a bit move something around speed it up slow it down then vocals will start to form we’ll add a chorus, a middle eight then look for the killer beat for the finish, the one that gets everyone’s head banging and the girls dancing all crazy like.
It may take a few hours, it could be weeks or months. At the end of it we got a finished song. We do a gig, play the song, see what people think. if they don’t like it, don’t play it again, if they love it, well we struck gold. If the reaction is in the middle, the next week we go back to the studio, revise and try again.

So does this make my band Experts in Agile? No. No It doesn’t because it is a title and in the immortal words of Randal Graves - title does not dictate behaviour.

Elliot said on July 7, 2011 9:43 AM

Good post, as I fall in to the ‘been doing this far to long category’, it’s interesting to have this job role clarified.

Pulling these quotes out:

‘So itís useful for us to separate skill sets and be able to tell people that what they are doing isnít in fact user experience design, at least not yet.’

‘if you recruit for a Web Designer rather than a Senior User Experience Designer’

‘Like all job titles, they are much more useful for people progressing through their careers than they are for people who have already reached the pinnacle.’

So do you see User Experience Designer as a progression of time then? 10 years ago Web Designer was enough but now we’re making much more complicated things so we need, not just specialist terms for the process, but a whole role as well? Interaction with a computer has existed long before the web, so why has this role only come about in recent years?

Lastly if UX Designer is a progression in your career how does this fit in amongst other roles. If this is a separate discipline, don’t you start as a junior UX Designer next to a junior Web Designer?

Web Design Egypt said on July 7, 2011 11:56 AM

Thank you very much for the nice post.

Avangelist said on July 7, 2011 7:04 PM

I will risk being lambasted but I’d say Elliot has a keen observation here.

I imagine that in the next decade we will (at least I really hope) that the existence of junior roles form. There is a very strong stench of elitism within this new field (only in web development mind) where to be a so called expert or experienced practitioner requires years of dedication and learning and understanding the craft as Andy has said here, on my blog and many others.

The question becomes, which I raised in my post where exactly are these people expected to gain this knowledge from. If we think about the areas in which it encompasses as mentioned in this post information architecture, interface design, interaction design, research, analysis, testing, reporting and many other practices are part of it.

Sadly this goes back to the original argument. There is absolutely nothing to say that a person who is currently, or previously has worked in any one of these fields cannot attain the title of user experience designer.

Pretty sure the guys and gals at apple aren’t actually geniuses.
Neatly returning me to my original quote.

Wolf said on July 7, 2011 10:28 PM

Speaking of UX, is it possible to fix the s of this blog? I hate having thirteen links called Andy Budd:Blogography links in my pinboard.in. Thanks.

Guy Carberry said on July 8, 2011 10:29 AM

When advertising a job position I think it’s more important to list the actual skills your looking for rather than focussing on the job title itself. You know you have a problem and you want somebody with the right tools to solve it.

If you need someone who can conduct usability test sessions but is also a Javascript guru then say so. Likewise, if you need a project manager with marketing skills, that’s fine too. Just give a clue about what the likely balance between these things might be.

You flag these things up front and have a criteria to collect evidence in order to sift CVs and eliminate people from the interview stage. For me it’s all about having the right evidence to know that the person you want to employ can do what you need them to do.

The job title you use as the central hook of the advertisement should merely serve to draw people in to read the further specifics of the job position. But in most cases, of itself, it is meaningless as in our industry there is no shared understanding about what any of these terms encapsulate.

Rishi Sinha said on July 12, 2011 11:29 AM

Wow! This article is capable of opening eyes of people who are into hiring UX Experts / Web Designers. Also it is capable of making people like us (in the field) look into the mirror and ask… isn’t Andy right about it? What are the things I don’t know?

Ben Jeffery said on July 12, 2011 2:04 PM

Completely agree, great article. I think UI design and graphic design are completely different and should be worked on separately. We have a separate UI process for our websites where we create wireframes with basic layout and no “graphic” design first. This means we know everything’s included and how things should be laid out, and more importantly think about the process users will take. Only once that’s signed off do we add a layer of graphic design, the colours and buttons and elements that finish the job. The definition of design for me is the practical application of beauty, so it has to be there for a reason.

Avangelist said on July 12, 2011 3:32 PM

Ben, you’re describing what any good designer or anyone with a background in art is doing before you see that final design.
Your emphasising that there are not the skills to embellish on them but the communicative aspect of design - position, layout, weight, emphasis, location and so on are done in sketch and played around with before they suddenly become what you might consider to be fully fleshed designs.
On one hand your agreeing with Andy’s statements, on the other your not.
If I understood correctly you are saying you create wireframes to construct your design and discuss whether it will work before giving it to a colour-inner.

That means your designer isn’t an interface designer therefore doesn’t fit within this so called craft. Chances are he is capable of that work, but not being given the experience or opportunity to prove/disprove the concept. Nothing to say that he doesn’t have the potential to be a great experience designer based on the knowledge he gathers from approaching his work from a different angle given the chance.